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World Homeless Day + SPY: A Safe Place For Youth 

World Homeless Day falls on October 10 this year. At MagicLinks, we couldn’t be more proud to highlight our non-profit partner and Venice, California, neighbor: Safe Place for Youth, or SPY.

World Homeless Day originated in 2010 and has been celebrated on every continent since. The intention is to highlight the needs of the unhoused, educate local communities and provide opportunities to get involved. 

THE PROBLEM

There are over 4,600 young people experiencing homelessness on the streets of LA county on any given night. The City of Venice, California, accounts for 5% of the land, but 49% of the homeless population. This now includes approximately 1 in 40 residents

“HOMELESS” to “UNHOUSED”

Using people-first language like “unhoused” or “people experiencing homelessness” is replacing labels like “homeless, which implies that someone is “less-than.” It undermines self-esteem and progressive change, when the truth is, being unhoused is a circumstance. It’s not a defining characteristic. 

SPY advocates that labels can have a profound personal impact upon those in insecure housing situations. It implies that there is a moral and social assumption that everyone should be housed in the first place. 

SPY

Enter SPY, the lead homeless service provider for youth ages 12 to 25 in the Westside of Los Angeles. SPY’s story began in 2011, when a group of concerned citizens led by founder Alison Hurst started providing snack packs and hygiene kits out of their cars. The organization has since grown into an $11 million 501c3 non-profit with nearly 80 full-time staff, housing an average of 100 youth and their children on any given night.

“When [Alison] saw the unhoused community, what stood out to her was the young people,” said Erika Hartman, Executive Director of SPY. “It was a completely unmet need in Venice at the time.”

SPY’s Access Center lies in the heart of Venice, California, where youth come for anything from routine covid testing, case management, meals, showers, career services, health screening and much more (full list at the end of this article). They also deploy multidisciplinary outreach teams five days a week to enroll youth in their services.

Andrea Murray, SPY’s Development Manager, says she has been working with the unhoused for around eight years and has never met anyone who doesn’t want help. “Even if it takes one week, two weeks, two years or more, there can be a sense of distrust that needs to be broken.” 

“Maybe it was another non-profit that tried to help them and couldn’t or maybe they ended up getting an apartment voucher for unsubsidized rent and then they couldn’t find a landlord that would accept that voucher before it expired,” said Murray. “Maybe they had a bad experience with a government agency, but the first obstacle with our outreach teams is breaking that sense of distrust that has accumulated over years and sometimes even decades.”

SPY also houses a “Healing Arts” program, where youth go for a wide array of art, sound and movement workshops. Murray says it is not uncommon for someone to show up for a healing arts class for their first time and by the end start asking questions like, “so how do I get a case manager?” Or “what’s this education and employment department all about?” 

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

Youth learning to care for themselves and transition into adulthood are one of the fastest growing unhoused populations. Hartman says there are many reasons that lead to youth homelessness, including LGBTQ+ issues, the child welfare system and systemic racism. California has the highest number of youth experiencing homelessness across the country, 70% of whom are people of color. 

“We disproportionately serve black males, who have the highest rates of detention and welfare,” Hartman said. “Systemic racism limits people’s opportunities and increases rates of childhood expulsion. Studies have found that when someone experiences trauma, they need some type of resiliency buffer. So I think it’s a combination of not having a loving, caring adult resiliency buffer and demographics.”

Hartman believes that operating through a lens of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion internally will translate into how they treat the youth members they serve externally. Nearly a quarter  of the population they work with are LGBTQ+, which carries a considerably higher probability of being abused or detained.

SPY reports: “When asked how they became homeless, 59% had either been kicked out by a parent or caregiver; runaway from unbearable home environments that include physical and/or sexual abuse, homophobia or transphobia, parental mental illness or substance abuse, and 23% reported previous involvement in the foster care system.” 

DRIVING IMPACT

While the pandemic could have been disastrous for the unhoused population, SPY and their community partners increased the number of youth they housed by more than 115%. The Venice shelter “A Bridge Home” miraculously opened 3 weeks before Covid-19 struck. In partnership with People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), SPY was able to provide beds for 154 individuals — 54 of those for transition-aged youth (ages 18 to 24).

SPY also assisted with Project Room Key, utilizing empty hotel rooms as temporary housing. Throughout their most challenging year, SPY kept 277 young people off the streets and safe in their care.

Murray says a day in the life at their Venice Access Center starts with a bustling community meeting to take inventory of what service providers are on site and assess the day’s programming. On any given Monday through Thursday, the center will see between 60 to 70 unhoused youth.

“It’s hard to explain a day in the life at SPY without smiling,” Murray said. There are so many ways we can help and so many non-profits and staff members that are a part of that. It really is a community-building effort.”

“WE CAN’T DO IT ALONE”

SPY is a longtime non-profit partner of MagicLinks. The organizations are also neighbors, coexisting within a matter of blocks. MagicLinks is well aware of the host of problems facing the unhoused in the area, so when seeking ways to get involved, SPY was a natural fit.

“Living unhoused can be so overwhelming and affect your sense of self worth, so when you see volunteers like MagicLinks, when you see they are hosting workshops, they are volunteering where they can, they are your neighbor, they are from this community,” Murray said. “Local partnerships like MagicLinks remind all of our unhoused neighbors they are worth it.”

Throughout the multi-year partnership, MagicLinks has hosted several career development workshops, participated in meal prep, holiday gifting programs, and employees volunteer countless hours in SPY’s Community Garden, in addition to monetary donations. 

“SPY was a completely volunteer-run organization for a long time and a lot of the services we provide are still provided by volunteers,” Hartman said. “The hands-on aspect of having volunteers is invaluable, but it is also within this framework of having loving, caring adult supportive buffers that can be role models. Adults from different walks of life that have different careers. For young people to be able to see that and start building those trusting relationships, it helps us connect them to resources through the lens of a supportive community out there who values you and believes in you.”

“The human touch is so impactful,” said Nicole Lim, Social Responsibility Manager at MagicLinks. “That in-person experience helps us form a special connection with the community. We are in the center of the problem here in Venice. We are connected to it first hand, so any way we can help is beyond meaningful.”

GET INVOLVED

Youth homelessness is going up about 20% a year with around 5,000 unhoused youth in L.A. County, Hartman says.

“Any time we can take the message of homelessness to other audiences that are not within our reach is enormous,” Hartman said. “Anyone can be a spokesperson. Anywhere we can shift perspectives, educate people, bring them along and help connect them to this issue helps build public support.“

Murray said plenty of people show up to help with the problem, but the system is broken.

“At the end of the day, we need help,” Murray said. “If you have a skill or network or idea or donation, hit us up. It just takes reaching out with what you have to address the different needs of our youth members.”

Next year, SPY will break ground on a flagship site with over 40 units of housing, services and retail in conjunction with their social enterprise. They are employing innovative models, like mixing generations and permanent supportive housing for transition-aged youth.

While the unhoused crisis is growing, partnerships like MagicLinks and SPY show the value of community. Everyone can play a role in addressing youth homeless at a critical age to prevent chronic homelessness. Start exploring your own contribution now:

Sat. Oct 23rd – SPY youth members with lived experience in the foster care system have teamed up with the Department of Mental Health and Elevate to plan “A Season of Change: Cultivating Transformative Wellness” – our First Annual Virtual Youth Summit which focuses on improving systems of wellness, including emotional, mental, and physical health; ensuring they’re more equitable, accessible, and meaningful for everyone.

Thurs. Oct 28th – Our NextGen young professionals board has teamed up with Don’t Tell Comedy to host a comedy show fundraiser in Venice with partners like Firestone Walker Brewing Co., Topo Chico, Vervet Canned Cocktails, and more. Get tickets.

FULL LIST OF SPY SERVICES

  • Housing referrals
  • Return home travel
  • Case management
  • Food & snacks
  • Hygiene products
  • Clothing
  • Internet
  • Counseling & support groups
  • Health education
  • Education & employment
  • Pregnant & parenting support
  • Legal clinic
  • Transportation
  • Health screenings
  • Dental clinic
  • Sleeping bags
  • Bus tokens
  • Mail & phone services
  • HIV Testing
  • Art & music groups
  • Creative writing
  • Crafts
  • Yoga
  • Pet care

SOURCES:

https://www.unhoused.org/overview

https://www.endeavors.org/community-services-news/homeless-vs-experiencing-homelessness-why-vocabulary-matters/

https://homelessworldcup.org/homelessness-statistics/

https://endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america/homelessness-statistics/state-of-homelessness-dashboards/?State=California

https://www.lahsa.org/documents?id=4558-2020-greater-los-angeles-homeless-count-presentation

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