By Krista Schwimmer
With even more homeless people living on the streets, it is inspiring to meet and talk with Ivonne Guzman, CEO of “Reach for the Top,” a federally tax-exempt, non-profit organization. Located in Venice since 2005, this organization is dedicated to housing the homeless, as well as distributing food to the community itself.
To accomplish their main mission of housing the homeless, they have purchased two properties: a triplex and a single family home, allowing them to have 4 different households. Two of these households hold all men; one, a mix of men and women; and the fourth houses families. Due to the high cost of real estate in Venice, both households are outside of Venice itself. The people they serve, however, are from the Venice community.
Ivonne is a passionate and enthusiastic member of the Venice Community. She came to Venice with her parents when she was five and has lived on the same block since, her parents having purchased several properties together. Although she did not plan on becoming involved in “Reach for the Top”, she believes in” divine intervention, divine path”. This is the path she has been put on.
What is amazing about this program is that not only does it provide shelter for anyone needing it – people ranging from the very educated to those coming out of prison – but it helps them gather the tools to then move on to permanent housing. Some of this is accomplished with the help of the Department of Social Services that started a private housing program 2 years ago. This allows for some basic funds for each individual. The rest is accomplished through the contributions of the household folks themselves. Everyone contributes in someway. There is no such thing as a free ride.
Although they do not keep statistics, Ivonne says the program is very successful. The average stay is between 9 and 12 months. They can stay up to 24 months. “The truth is, “ Ivonne declares, “I don’t kick anyone out unless they are bad, meaning they are causing problems for everyone else. Then, they have to go.” She says they are particularly good at keeping clients from returning to crime; and recently, she helped a single father with amazing computer skills obtain a job at NASA. Now, he is looking for a home here in Venice.
Currently, what keeps Ivonne motivated and excited is the new facility in the works that would add 27 new beds for moms and children only. “It’s really sad,” Ivonne bemoans “when you see young kids out there with babies.” There are some funds already allocated for this facility. They are working on developing a site for it in the West Adams District.
Ivonne has a lot of dreams. She dreams of developing affordable housing here in Venice; of greening throughout the City itself; and of employment development. All of this takes will, money and most of all time – “time and a good team”, she exclaims.
Towards the end of our interview, Ivonne announces that she has decided to run for office in the Neighborhood Council. “I’m scared to death; but by the same token, I just feel that it is time to – when I was younger we would have parades for things like Cinqo de Mayo. The people were more united. We need to go back to that more, to people holding hands and saying we’re not going to take this anymore. We don’t want to be known as the persecutors of the people, just because you don’t have a place to live.”
It is people like Ivonne – with her compassion, commitment, and sense of community – that give Venice soul. If Venice is to truly be, as Ivonne herself believes, “the heartbeat of Los Angeles,” then we must support her and others like her even more than ever.