Safe Place For Youth – Heroes

 – by Lisa Robins

There are new kids on my block. Actually, they don’t really look like kids. They look like they could be threatening… streetwise, dirty, some with an attitude…like they’ve been living in the urban jungle…they have.

One time I found a vape pipe on the ledge of my daughter’s window. Another time I found sneakers in my tiny front lawn next to the circle of chairs around our fire pit. For a while someone was stashing their sleeping bag in our bamboo. I wondered if they were sleeping in our yard.

They congregate in what appears to be an alley near my house a few days a week. Lots of them. Playing their music…hanging out…waiting.

For SPY to open.

I think…this is dumb…they bring the homeless into my hood, but they don’t house them…place doesn’t open till 1…do I really want a bunch of down and outers right across the street?!
There’s a part of me, a part I’m not too proud of, that goes “Oh my god…look at all those scummy people loitering near my house”. Hey, not in our backyard! I feel myself turning into one of those people…the NIMBY’s.

But wait a minute. Why did I move to Venice? What kind of a person am I??

One of the guys who work there parks in front of my house. He’s super cool…extremely friendly and respectful…I tell him that I’m finding stuff in my yard…he listens sympathetically and assures me they take the concerns of the neighbors very seriously, and coach the kids to respect the neighborhood. The problem eases up… Turns out he’s one of the Spy “outreach” people…those who go into the homeless community and spread the word. I’m really glad, because the guy is so friendly and likeable I can’t imagine anyone turning away from his help. He lures them into this alley in Venice. Across the street from my home.

It’s the back door to 2469 Lincoln Blvd. the home of SPY, a drop in center for street kids

SAFE PLACE for YOUTH provides access to critical resources for young people ages 12-25 experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

SPY is free and low barrier with no requirements (like being drug free) kids can use services no matter what shape they’re in

SPY’s mission is “to inspire, nurture and empower the resilient human spirit of homeless youth by providing immediate and lasting solutions, one young person at a time.”

SPY saves lives.

It was founded in 2011 by Alison Hurst who moved here from London in 2001. She saw all the homeless kids, with little to no services. Her response to a system that doesn’t work was to take action.

Alison, along with members of her family and friends, began by offering food and clothing from the trunks of their cars, graduated to Oakwood Park, where she and her team of dedicated volunteers rented space in the church to cook meals, which evolved into a drop in center at Westminster Sr.Center. From there, Safe Place for Youth (SPY) was founded, modeled on programs provided in England, with its more socialist economy.

Five years later, under her leadership as Executive Director, Alison has been joined by a team of 15 staff members and 15 regular volunteers. SPY is regarded as the lead agency for homeless and at-risk youth in West Los Angeles.

Late Councilman, Bill Rosendahl took notice and helped them obtain their current space on Lincoln 2 years ago, forged connections with business partners, and advocated funding from government agencies.

SPY has now been on Lincoln for 2 years enjoying great rent, a great location near transportation, and most importantly near homeless youth congregating on the beach.
I crossed the street to meet with Rachel Stich, SPY’s very lovely and compassionate, very pregnant, Deputy Director of Development and Administration.

Originally from La Canada, she’s lived in Venice for the past 10 years. One of the lucky ones, her parents raised her to believe that “everyone deserves the same opportunities”. After receiving her degree in communications and PR she didn’t know what she wanted to do. But Rachel feels the injustice, the failure of society and feels she can make a difference

She worked for non-profits, and has been with SPY for 1 ½ years. I ask her why ages 12-25? I understand 12-18 (although honestly I’ve never seen really young kids) But 18-25? They don’t really seem like kids to me at that point.

Rachel reminded me that those are vital years for making the transition from child to adult. High school ends, and many kids from troubled homes are kicked out or run away. Foster care ages out at 18, and those kids have a 60% chance of being homeless.

They sleep under freeway bridges, in cars, at the beach…I see encampments on Lincoln Blvd and 3rd street to name a few.

According to the Los Angeles Housing Authority’s 2015 Homeless Youth Count report, there are approximately 6,150 homeless youth on the streets any given night in LA County.

Very few are homeless because they believe in an “alternative life style- living out of the box”. Most are there due to layers of trauma, and many have no support system.

“One of the fastest growing unhoused populations, transition-aged youth (TAY) are at-risk of becoming chronically homeless without sufficient resources and supportive services. The young people we serve at SPY find themselves homeless or at-risk of homelessness through no fault of their own. Of the youth that we engaged with in 2016, 59% reported being kicked out by a parent or caregiver or running away from unbearable home environments that includes physical and/or sexual abuse, homophobia, parental mental illness, or substance abuse. 23% reported becoming homeless as a result of their previous involvement in the foster care system. Youth experiencing homelessness deal with a complex set of issues related to disconnection from family and community, abuse and neglect, significant past trauma, grief and loss, mental illness, criminalization, a history of low family income, and exclusion from education. This translates into few prospects for education, employment, or social participation, and can manifest into psychological distress and trauma.”

Additionally there are the “hidden homeless” such as those living in their car, or sleeping on a friend’s floor.

Rachel’s noticed how her lack of sleep (due to pregnancy) has changed her own mindset and attitudes. “Imagine”, she mused, “never being able to get a night’s sleep. One thing leads to another… sleeping on sidewalks, worried about theft, scavenging for food, dealing with the elements, trying to keep clean..it all becomes a full time job leaving little time to take the steps required to lift oneself off the street. These kids aren’t lazy…. nobody wants this life, no one chooses to be homeless.”

Loss of dignity coupled with exhaustion exacerbated by untreated mental illness or mental health issues and/or substance abuse, along with a severe lack of affordable housing create a recipe for this epidemic of homeless youth.

The rift between the rich and poor widens and our youth falls into the crack

“It’s a victory for these kids to be able to take a nap in a safe place” Rachel points out.

I feel ashamed that I judged the sleeping bodies on my street.

It’s heavy stuff…But Rachel tells me this age is still so resilient, have their lives ahead of them, providing the opportunity to intervene. The chronically homeless are harder to get off the street.

The top priority is care and connection, knowing that someone’s on their team.

I asked her what she thinks it would take to get them off the street?

She showed me around.

The drop in center is open T, W, & Th. from 1-5 –for meals, clothing, shower, or just a nap.

M & F mornings SPY hosts other programing.

My new friend, Rob, along with other staff, volunteers, and the LGBT center engage TAY through street outreach and direct them to SPY.

Kids check in, then sign up for services. Everything’s on site.

New at SPY is a sit down case manager to assess needs and offer services, like a concierge.

There are 2 showers, and a large closet providing clean (donated) clothes.

Meals are 100% donated, homemade, and served by volunteers in an outside space. Snacks, hygiene products, sleeping bags and backpacks are given to go.

A Wellness Center sponsored by Venice Family Clinic provides health and dental care, and

MediCal enrollment is provided.

A caring case management team offers support for pregnancy and parenting.

The Healing Arts Space uses art as a way to connect, including music groups, meditation and yoga, and the UCLA Creative Minds Project provides UCLA undergrads who facilitate creative arts therapy groups and drumming circles.

Additionally, there’s a Digital Art Space: featuring music production, graphic design, and 3-D printing.

Life skills workshops can lead to paid internships to build resumes and adopt professional etiquette (currently there are 4 homeless interns with paid internships for 6 months. I met 2 and never would have guessed they were homeless)

For kids ready to work there are job postings, and help in applications and building resumes.

5 youth recently got jobs in urban farming/gardening through the Urban Farmer Workshops.

5 Keys Charter School provides education specialists for a GED high school diploma: currently 10 youth enrolled.

Mail and phone services, computers and internet access are available.

Within a legal clinic, Public Counsel assists with ticket clearing, legal advocacy and “Know your Rights” workshops.

Family reunification can sometimes be achieved by helping to find family, and pay for the trip home.

Limited transportation assistance is given along with bus tokens.

LA County Department of Mental Health provides weekly mental health information, support and links to mental health services.

Exceptional Children’s Foundation- Provides mental health services through counseling, crisis stabilization, mediation, grief and loss support, and anger management.

Los Angeles LGBT Center- joins outreach as well as offering support to drop in youth

Recovery meetings are provided once a week in a 12-step format tailored for youth.

“Spy Squad” empowers TAY by inviting their input into their own recovery.

Pet care is provided by Animal Wellness Center, MDR, and Karma Rescue

THERE IS VERY LITTLE HOUSING ANYWHERE in LA, but Spy has connections. The St. Joseph Center provides weekly Rapid-Rehousing assessments to ensure youth have access to available permanent-supportive housing, SPY has some relations with landlords. When possible, SPY connects kids to openings at shelters-SM, Harvest Home (Prenatal). The Youth Coordinated Entry System increases access to housing. 14 youth were housed last month

All stepping stones to changing their lives.…

Who knew all this was hiding behind this unassuming storefront?!

Having this home, across the street from my home, gives SPY the ability to expand and grow their programs. Their budget in one million dollars, with 94% privately funded. 75-105 youth utilize their services per day

“I won’t stop”, Rachel vows, hope keeps her going. And it can keep the kids going too.

In 2016, 1,132 kids received support through their range of free services and low barrier programming.

No one else is doing this on the Westside. SPY partners, and does joint street outreach with My Friend’s Space, a similar organization based in Hollywood, and the LGTB Center, while Westside adults are served by the St Joseph Center.

The good news is that our politics are finally beginning to be more proactive.

Councilman Bill Rosendahl was a huge supporter, and Rachel tells me that Mike Bonin has picked up the ball and has done a great job at prioritizing the issue. Sheila Kuehl has stepped up homeless prevention and given funding.

County Measure HHH is giving funds for upcoming housing projects- The city is currently looking at all property they own and every city property has to find a place for housing. This includes the parking lot at the west end of Washington and the old bus depot on Pacific.

“Venice Dell Pacific” (Venice and Pacific) plans to provide low income housing developed by Venice Community Housing.

Here’s a link to the City website outlining some of their plans. http://clkrep.lacity.org

County Measure H- provides funding for supportive services (like SPY) HOORAY!

Local business connections include Snapchat (who funds SPY’s volunteer program, installed 2 bathrooms, has given bikes for youth, and provides meals 3 x month), and Google (who granted their digital arts lab).

SPY is raising its profile by hosting VNC community meetings, attending meetings, and hosting forums at private homes.

So perhaps there’s hope on the horizon.

On Mother’s Day, while walking toward my teenage daughter on our way to the beach, I came across a guy with a backpack sitting on the sidewalk on Windward. He asked me if I had a couple dollars to spare. I had no money on me so I told him no, and started to continue walking. I took a double take and realized he may be younger than he first looked. “How old are you?” I asked. “18”

“Are you homeless?” “Yes”.

“Have you heard about SPY? Safe Place for Youth?”

“Yeah…I heard of it.”

“Where are you sleeping?” “Oh, here and there… “

“Did you call your mom for mother’s day?” “I don’t have her number.” (Hmmm)

“So…did she kick you out? Or did you run away? Or…”

“A little of both..”

“You should go to SPY” I urged…”they could…they would help you …”

What could have been a threatening man became a boy who missed his mom right before my eyes and I so hope he’ll take advantages of the services this terrific organization offers.

What if this were my child???

I’m proud to welcome SPY as our neighbor and will look for ways to integrate them into our shared community. I contacted my neighbors to see if they had any thoughts pro or con about having SPY as our neighbor. One person reported that he, too, has noticed a bit more loitering, but no one has had any negative encounters or problems, and some didn’t even know they were there. Most enthusiastically responded to my idea to serve lunch there once a month. I spoke to Taylor, our rep from Councilmember Bonin’s office and he noted that SPY was obviously positive for the region, and the risk would be a negative impact locally. However, he reported that in his 1 ½ years as deputy there have been no complaints that he can recall…a remarkable thing!

He reiterated their enthusiastic support for the organization which has blossomed from a fledging seed of an idea to a self- sufficient organization.

It’s a respectful, safe place allowing the kids to exit survival/jungle mode for a while.

No longer a NIMBY, I Want to be part of the solution

I vow to become a YIMBY (Yes in my backyard! Well, maybe not in my backyard, but across the street? AOK)

If not us, then who? If not now? Then when?

Ways to help:

If you’re reading this and you’re homeless, or at risk of being homeless, check out SPY!

If you see homeless youth, tell them about SPY!

If you have money- give to SPY!

Donate cash, time, and/or talents. Give clothes, toiletries or commit to a meal once a month.

Organize a clothing or food drive from your congregation or whatever group you belong to.

Encourage a local business to give 10% of their profits.


Not having the time to research England’s economy, I posed this question to our smarty pants friends:
Anyone know how socialist England is? Someone recently said that England had a more socialist economy than the US, with more services for homeless. Can anyone back that up, or refute it?

We append a comment we received.

  • Not very. Most of the socialist-flavored policies and programs introduced by the Labor Party after WWII have been systematically dismantled by both the Conservatives under Thatcher and her successors and New Labor under Tony Blair, including privatizing national industries and services and destroying the labor movement. In fact, Jeremy Corbin is running in this election on a more socialist platform than Labor has pursued since Blair, including re-nationalizing the railroads and providing free and universal education through university (the latter doesn’t seem very socialist, though, when you remember that capitalist Germany offers it even to non-Germans). The only major “socialist” program that still exists in Britain is National Health, and the conservatives and neo-liberals are doing their best to cripple that; and, anyway, how socialist is something that is offered by every civilized nation but us? That said, as far as addressing poverty goes, yes, the Brits have pursued programs over the past 20 years that have dramatically reduced poverty there at the same time that poverty has risen significantly here, even though many of the economic issues facing Britain and the U.S. are the same. The U.S. spends significant amounts to reduce poverty, compared to most European countries, Britain included, to little effect. One difference is that they tend to do much more than we do to prevent poverty from taking root in the first place. For example, it is much easier to rise in class in EU countries than here, which is a huge brake on the development of a culture of poverty. Many people are kept from falling into poverty by programs like guarantee minimum incomes. And, of course, no one in the EU (or Canada or industrialized Asia) is driven into bankruptcy by getting sick. Britain isn’t socialist, but it has many more social and economic safety guards than we do. –