SPY Holiday Report

By Lisa Robins

I spoke with Alison Hurst, the founder of Safe Place for Youth, just before Thanksgiving.

Safe Place for Youth (SPY), is a drop in center in Venice which provides access to critical resources for young people ages 12-25 (transition age youth or TAY) experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Spy’s street outreach, case management, education and employment, and health & wellness services, help their members meet basic needs; improve physical, mental and emotional wellbeing; and develop meaningful relationships with peers, staff, and volunteers. http://www.safeplaceforyouth.org

I’ve always wondered how those down on their luck felt when they were showered with goods and services during the holidays, and then were seemingly forgotten once those with means had their “giving fix”. I asked Alison, “Do you sometimes feel the big holiday meal people give to make themselves feel good backfires?” Alison responded, “Any bit of warmth and compassion to those experiencing homelessness is good…but think- why do you have this urge now?” She tells me that SPY is inundated with offers in November and December, but could use the support now and every other day of the year.

When I asked where the kids SPY serves go for the holidays, Alison replied, “Nowhere. We do our best …holiday parties…faith based communities give meals, but at the end of the day they’re still homeless.”

Alison reminds me that most of the kids SPY serves are “homeless through no fault of their own”. They have been let down by the system at large: be it family; foster care; juvenile detention; etc.…and are finding refuge on the street. Their trauma gives them a different lens on life. There are complex needs, and many misconceptions floating around.
It keeps crossing my mind that “the homeless” are not a homogeneous group. I asked Alison what percentage of the kids are: aged out of foster care; abused; addicted; mentally ill; “bumming around”/drifters/travelers. But as we talked I realized my categories were out of touch with reality.

Each and every homeless person is unique. They may have a dominant need- i.e. mental health, drug rehab, etc.…however, the crossover is vast. One person can enter the system via abandonment by their family through neglect, abuse, or just aging out (large families with little to no resources- who simply cannot afford everyone- oldest kid has to go). Some become an addict on the streets, the stress triggers mental health problems, and on and on. Alison urges me not to categorize, “It’s fluid- the kids move in and out of groups”.
“The Adverse Childhood Experiment (ACE) Study found the higher the ACE Score, the greater the risk of experiencing poor physical and mental health, and negative social consequences later in life.” http://www.acestudy.org/the-ace-score.html


While it’s true that there’s no homogeneous profile of a homeless TAY (transitional age youth), the vast majority present some degree of mental health issues (although Alison notes that it’s tricky to report). The stress of living on the street (including lack of sleep and being preyed on) creates exhaustion, depression and anxiety. Often the process of obtaining help-navigating the system, can seem like an insurmountable mountain. As a person who has tried to get through to a case worker for MediCal, or EDD, I’ve experienced firsthand the debilitating frustration and degradation that comes with waiting endlessly for a person on the phone to help, only to be told by a machine that there are too many people currently being served, or a form that was turned in too late to qualify for that week. It’s depressing enough to fill out these forms, but to attempt to do it without a roof over my head or food in my stomach is unimaginable.

Additionally, the homeless youth’s brain is still developing. The emotional part of their brain, the amygdala, still rules. Their pre-frontal cortex, the rational part-which produces good judgement and an understanding of long-term consequences, isn’t generally fully developed until age 25 or so. If there’s any predisposition for schizophrenia the psychic break generally occurs during college age years from stress and/or 1st use of drugs. A bulletin from the National Institute of Mental Health states “The initial prodrome (from the Greek word prodromos meaning the forerunner of an event) in psychosis is potentially important for early intervention, identification of biological markers, and understanding the process of becoming psychotic.” http://mentalhealth.com. While this early diagnosis can’t always save one from the ravages of schizophrenia, at least the young person might have a chance with early treatment. The Disabled World Website states, “The effects of homelessness on teens can be devastating and lead to violence, prostitution, drug abuse, severe depression and juvenile detention. Because many teens who live on the street do not receive adequate medical care in a prompt manner, many health problems go undiagnosed or untreated, causing pain and sometimes a crippling illness which often times leaves them incapacitated or even dead. Often homeless youth join gangs as they offer kinship and a close-knit community and protection. Dealing with the stress of being on the street in addition to the ordinary issues teens face every day, can lead to violent outbursts and suicide.” https://www.disabled-world.com/disability/blogs/homeless-youth. Complicating the matter are “bad eggs” (of any age), who seem to feel that being down on their luck entitles them to steal or take advantage of those better off. This behavior can greatly sour the compassion and understanding of many in our community, despite the hardships that no doubt led to the behavior.

I asked if Alison believes the kids need to be sober to deserve services. “Years of research show housing first; services first: then sobriety.” Housing first is the new standard for providing services to all age groups

Are the city services adequate? I asked, already suspecting the answer.

In a word, no. Alison says that “recent data has been released which is shocking: 58,000 unhoused, 6,000 homeless youth…the perception of who our unhoused folks are and what they want from life is myth busting”.

The Voices of Youth Count national survey, from the University of Chicago, sought to identify how common, or prevalent, youth homelessness is in America. “At least one in 30 adolescent minors ages 13 to 17, endures some form of homelessness. The prevalence climbs even higher when looking at homelessness among young adults (ages 18-25). 5.2% for explicit homelessness, 4.5% for couch surfing only, and 9.7% overall. The estimated count reveals more than 3.5 million, or 1 in 10, young adults experienced homelessness in a year… particular subpopulations are at higher risk for homelessness, including black and Hispanic youth; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth (LGBT); youth who do not complete high school; and youth who are parents.” http://voicesofyouthcount.org

But “Kids are resilient. Housing, employment, caring adults can help,” the eternally optimistic leader of SPY counters. Optimistic because, “I see every day the miracle that a caring connection can do for a young person”. Government agencies, businesses, faith based organizations and the community in our area are stepping up.

November was “National Youth homeless awareness month”, highlighted in SPY’s and other organization’s social media.

The immediate goal is health/food/shelter. Measure H, which provides funding for services, will make a huge impact, but not enough, there are not enough resources.

Alison and I discussed long and short term solutions for homeless people of all ages, especially youth.

Affordable housing- There’s a severe lack of affordable housing, even for those working multiple jobs. One might think, “Why shouldn’t they live elsewhere where the rent is cheaper?” Alison says, “That breeds a segregated society where the workers – in restaurants, supermarkets, etc.…all live elsewhere.” Affordable housing proposals currently span across LA City and County. Alison is 100% in favor of the Venice-Dell-Pacific proposal. It’s “preserving diversity of the community…beautiful building, wonderful architect, Venice Community Housing knows what they’re doing. The alternative is everything gets gentrified and we all get pushed out.”

Host Homes- take young people into homes to help them stabilize.

Dorm/youth hostel type accommodations: private sleeping nooks with shared kitchen, bathrooms and indoor and outdoor living areas.

Communal living style is appropriate for TAY, confirms Alison.
Tiny Homes
Shelters –emergency housing
Bridge housing- temporary housing
Vouchers for rapid rehousing -However, many are languishing on the street even if they’re eligible for vouchers due to a lack of affordable housing and landlords willing to accept Section 8 vouchers.)

Other potential short term solutions could include campsites with facilities, motels converted into lodging for homeless, empty hospitals opened for homeless youth, and easing restrictions on car and motor home sleeping. Some of these solutions may feel like an infringement on the rights of the housed, and great effort must be taken to respect all parties.
Reunification -Spy has “reunified tons of youth very successfully”

SPY works together with many other organizations to achieve their mutual goals.

The Westside Coalition’s website defines itself as “An alliance of 46 organizations, public agencies and faith communities committed to working collaboratively on issues of housing, hunger and health through service coordination, public education and advocacy…. Although individual agencies have the ability to provide separate services for people in need, the efforts of the Westside Coalition help coordinate all services on the Westside in order to provide a true continuum of service care for the community.” http://www.westsideshelter.org. They host monthly meetings working together for broader, deeper, more coordinated services.

SPY refers to Harvest Home, whose mission is to “transform the lives of homeless pregnant women and their children by providing housing, support, and programs that equip women to become great mothers.” http://www.theharvesthome.net

SPY works with The Venice Neighborhood Council Homeless Committee’s year old Reunification Program, which has housed 20 people so far this year,
What we as a community can do for the homeless kids of Venice? It’s impossible for anyone- government, neighborhood or kids, to solve everything. Alison reminds me, “It’s going to take everyone in the community to come together to be part of the solution to make a difference.”

At a recent Venice Neighborhood Council Homeless Committee meeting addressing Councilmember Bonin’s plan for portable facilities, my perception was that the committee was trying to walk the fine line between caring for our homeless brothers and sisters, and the needs of our housed residents. There was talk of better communication to direct those in need with appropriate services. I look forward to following up with more details from the VNC Homeless committee regarding their thoughts on the homeless youth of Venice.

Judging from some of the neighborhood chatter on at the VNC meeting or websites such as Nextdoor, a portion of our community would just like the problem to disappear along with the homeless people. Don’t let them charge their phones, go to the bathroom at night, just disappear. Others express dismay in a system which seems to shuffle people from one institution to another: enriching those employed by the system, but not really making a dent in the problem. And then there are residents who have great empathy and ideas…
Alison urges a “Buy in from whole community- this is our responsibility”.

This holiday season I invite every Beachhead reader to search our souls how we, as members of the Venice community, can make a difference in the lives of these kids currently living on the street. And make a commitment to follow through throughout the year.

Some ways to contribute include:
1) Volunteer –not just during the holidays, but all year long. Sponsor neighborhood or community lunches. Find a way to share your expertise.
2) Donate goods- clothes, sleeping bags, toiletries are all greatly appreciated.
3) Donate money- For those with lots of money and no time, a financial contribution helps enormously.
3) Affordable housing- Attend meetings-Understand the approval process and help correct misconceptions.
4) Advocate for those who can’t.
5) Educate yourself and then educate others about the root causes of homelessness.
Some of the ways I’m currently looking to help are by educating myself about homeless issues in LA and writing these articles to spread the word. I’m volunteering with our congregation’s social action committee. Hopefully we’ll join the Westside coalition to work together with other like-minded organizations. I’ll attend VNC meetings when I can. I’ll host SPY community lunches and look forward to sharing my talents via play-making and improv with its members. Most importantly, I look our homeless youth straight in the eye, and whenever I can encourage them to partake in the services SPY offers