From the street to housing: Homeless outreach efforts in Downtown Santa Monica

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Story shared from Santa Monica Daily Free Press

By Grace Adams

Editor’s Note:

Following this year’s annual Homeless Count on Jan 25 and in anticipation of the results in May, over the next few months the Santa Monica Daily Press will be taking a closer look at the efforts currently in place in the City to address homelessness. Through a series of articles, we’ll explore the network of available services, what’s working and what’s not, and what ideas are out there to better address the crisis going forward. Once a person falls into homelessness, the journey out is long and arduous. Through this series we’ll show what that journey looks like in Santa Monica: from the street to housing. This week, we’re focusing on outreach – the act of engaging individuals living on the street with the goal of connecting them to services – beginning with Downtown Santa Monica, the epicenter of the City’s homelessness crisis. 

On a recent Wednesday morning, Donovan Wilkes walked into the Starbucks on the Third Street Promenade, but not to order a coffee. Instead, he asked the store’s employees a series of questions: how many people were sleeping outside when the store opened at 5 a.m.? Were they the same people as usual? Any incidents he should know about?

This is how Wilkes, the Outreach Coordinator for Downtown Santa Monica (DTSM), begins many of his days. As the earliest place open on the Promenade, he said the Starbucks is a “hotspot” for homeless individuals to gather in the mornings.

“Just like most of us, they need a coffee to get the day started,” he said, gesturing to a man sitting on the ground outside holding a steaming cup in his hands. “Tony right here, he’s a regular, he sits there, he gets his coffee, he minds his business and he gets going.”

Wilkes said most of the individuals outside the Starbucks in the morning leave as the day goes on and shoppers and tourists fill the street. However, in the event that there is a problem, he said DTSM has services in place to support employees of downtown businesses.

“They know our program pretty well, they know to reach out and call for folks who are a little more aggressive,” he said.

DTSM contracts with the company Block by Block to provide maintenance, safety and hospitality services downtown. As part of an effort to address safety concerns on the promenade, they recently merged the hospitality and safety teams and put all of those employees through training to become certified as security guards.

“Just the hospitality training was not sufficient to be able to deal with some of the challenges that we face here in our downtown,” DTSM CEO Andrew Thomas said. “In the past when we had a need to respond, and there were only hospitality ambassadors available, we had to scramble to find people who could respond to these issues.”

He said that with the newly-combined team, now referred to as “community ambassadors,” DTSM has nearly doubled the number of employees through Block by Block capable of responding to safety-related concerns involving individuals experiencing homelessness and trained in de-escalation techniques.

The Outreach Team, which Wilkes heads, has much of the same training, plus additional experience and expertise on how to engage with people on the streets. In addition to being a resource to address issues that arise, their job is to approach anyone who appears to be living in homelessness downtown with the goal of connecting them to services such as shelter, mental health care, rehab and employment support, to help them get off the street and eventually into stable housing.

Building relationships

Unlike the ambassadors, who are recognizable by their teal jackets, DTSM’s five outreach workers wear casual clothes without logos or branding. The only thing that identified Wilkes as a DTSM employee as he walked down the Promenade on Wednesday was a hat reading Downtown Santa Monica across the front.

“That is intentional,” said Erica Leon, the General Manager of DTSM. “A lot of these individuals are always being approached by someone in uniform and there is a fear around that.”

Wilkes said a key part of outreach work is building relationships and gaining trust, and not differentiating himself through his clothing helps him to do that.

After leaving Starbucks, Wilkes continued down the promenade and spotted a man walking on the other side.

“Oh hey Chris!” He called out, waving. Chris smiled and stopped to talk for a few minutes.

“He is very interesting to me,” Wilkes said after Chris had left. “Chris has been out here experiencing homelessness in Santa Monica since at least 2017.”

He said Chris had occasionally gone to a shelter to shower or do laundry, but had never expressed interest in getting housing. While he said Chris had never opened up about specifically why he did not want to explore housing options, he added that this is not uncommon among people experiencing homelessness and is often the result of previous negative experiences.

“If someone’s kind of hesitant about housing, it’s usually something inside their past that they’re not expressing,” he said.

This, Wilkes said, is where the value of relationship building through outreach comes in. Even if someone does not accept services the first, second or even tenth time he offers them, by developing that ongoing relationship he is able to build trust and gain a better understanding of what is holding them back and work to overcome it.

“It’s all about the constant engagement,” he said. “That’s why whenever I do see Chris I stop whatever I am doing and go talk to him – it’s getting the smallest bits of information from him one at a time… putting the small things together to create the whole picture.”

Wilkes said he and his team take a “trauma informed” approach to outreach, keeping in mind how the experiences people living in homelessness have been through contribute to their current state.

“Even if you experienced homelessness for one night, you are already facing a whole lot of trauma which is going to affect mental health,” he said. “And the more time you spend at the street level, you deteriorate – you’re exposed to more trauma, you’re exposed to more difficulties.”

Several members of the outreach team have experienced homelessness themselves and Wilkes said this helps them to effectively engage with people and determine the best services to meet their specific needs.

“They are able to connect with our clients, people at street level, in a different way than somebody who hasn’t experienced homelessness would be,” he said. “The idea that they understand what the struggles are, they understand what the barriers are, they understand the circumstances and they’re able to have that language to speak towards them that the person at the street level can really feel.”

Measuring Progress

Walking down 2nd Street towards Colorado Avenue, Wilkes encountered a man walking down the sidewalk with a duffle bag whom he had not seen in Santa Monica before. He approached the man, introduced himself and asked if he was interested in learning about services.

The man looked surprised by the question at first, but then said, “Yeah man, I’m tired of being on the street.”

Wilkes talked to him for a bit and found out that his mother had passed away and that his mental health had not been in a good place since.

There are many reasons people become homeless and Wilkes said acknowledging that and approaching individuals with empathy and not judgment is part of the solution.

“If my mom passed away I’d be lost in the world too,” Wilkes told the man.

He asked him a few questions and found out the man did not have a valid ID, which is necessary to receive most forms of services. Getting an ID requires a valid mailing address which the man did not have. Wilkes told him he could use the address of the nearby shelter and filled out a form with all of the information he would need. He then gave the man a bus ticket and directions to the nearest DMV.

Before he left, Wilkes pulled out a ziplock bag containing snacks and a water bottle and handed it to the man. All of the outreach workers carry a snack pack, emergency blanket, hygiene products, socks and other essential items in their packs, but Wilkes said they keep track and make sure not to provide them to the same person more than once.

“We don’t want to continue to give out the same items to the same people, at that point we’re only enabling them and keeping them on the street,” he said. “These are items to be given in the intermediate so they can get to the actual, more sustainable resource.”

Throughout the morning Wilkes talked to close to a dozen people. He recorded each interaction into a data system that DTSM uses to monitor the situation and analyze trends. A few individuals, like the man on 2nd Street, were receptive to his offers of services, but others were not. While Wilkes said the goal of this type of work is to get people to utilize services that ultimately lead to housing, there are other, more incremental ways he measures success through developing relationships.

“The goal of outreach is to get individuals experiencing homelessness off the streets and indoors, but the success is a resilient, confiding relationship built with individuals experiencing homelessness – trust is gained, services are accepted,” he said.

In addition to DTSM, Santa Monica also has an outreach team within the police department called the Homeless Liaison Program and the City also funds outreach teams through The People Concern organization. However, as Wilkes pointed out, outreach and getting people to accept services is only half the battle. Navigating the network of services and getting on a path to housing is a whole other challenge, especially with an overall lack of resources.

“There’s a shortage of services at all levels,” said Margaret Willis, a human services administrator for the City of Santa Monica. “There’s not enough outreach, there’s not enough shelter, there’s not enough permanent housing, there’s not enough mental health care, not enough substance centers.”