Safe Place for Youth is on a mission to help homeless youth

By Stepan Sarkisian

S.P.Y.’s Host Homes program coordinator Andrew Gutierrez III with Relly, a program member

Safe Place for Youth (S.P.Y.) started unofficially in 2011 with a small group of volunteers handing out homemade care packages to homeless youth throughout Venice Beach. Under the leadership of founder and executive director Alison Hurst, the organization was established that same year with a drop-in center in Venice and progressively expanded the coverage offered by their programs. Now regarded as one of the leading agencies for homeless youth in West Los Angeles, S.P.Y. has spent recent years breaking new ground in LA with an innovative approach to finding housing for homeless youth.

Having sustained its community-driven approach, S.P.Y. launched the grassroots Host Homes program in 2018 after a successful pilot run the previous year. The program pairs Transitional-Aged Youth (TAY) ages 18 to 25 with community members who have the needed space to accommodate their guests for a period of three to six months. This unique approach offers the dual benefit of pairing homeless youth with a wide support network of adults who help guide them through the process of finding permanent housing and employment, while also shifting the perception surrounding homeless youth within the community they are hosted.

“These youth are not the negative stereotypes that we often see in the media,” says Andrew Gutierrez III, Host Homes program coordinator. “These youth have gone through amazing things and have an amazing trajectory, and I think by opening up your home to a youth experiencing homelessness, (it) really shifts your idea; and once your ideas are shifted, you’re able to share those thoughts and feelings with others.”

Data released this year from the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority (LAHSA) reports that homeless youth make up slightly over 7% of the overall homeless population in LA county or roughly 4,775 young people out of 66,433 individuals. The report also highlights the unique needs and characteristics of homeless youth when compared to the overall homeless population. Youth are more likely to be female, Black, Latin American(x), and/or identify as LGBTQ, while having lower rates of substance abuse and mental illness.

“If they (TAY) are then taken out of homelessness during this time in their life, they are less likely to return to homelessness,” Gutierrez says. “So this is really a prevention tool, because we are intervening early.”

Alongside early intervention, key tenets of the Host Homes program focus on offering aid to youth through a trauma-informed perspective and a housing-first approach.

“Even with adult systems, sometimes they (Social Services) will require adults to go through certain steps prior to being housed,” Gutierrez explains. “We at S.P.Y. operate from a housing-first model, where we want to house them first and we make sure we have a safe and stable place for them. Then we’re going to provide all the wrap-around service that they need including mental health and wellness, education and employment, housing navigation, a therapist—whatever they need or want.”

Relly was 1 of 16 youth members within S.P.Y. to experience the Host program in 2018. A Washington native, Relly moved to LA in early 2018, sharing an apartment with a roommate that soon proved to be an unsustainable living situation. Escalating conflicts led to the departure of the roommate and Relly was unable to manage the high rent alone, and lacked any friends or relatives nearby to offer support. The situation that forced Relly into homelessness has many of the same parallels found among Transitional-Aged Youth, but unlike others, Relly quickly found support from S.P.Y.

“I always give them the math when I moved here,” he says. “I got here in like January or February 2018, and I got my keys to my place (following the Host Homes program) in December 2018. I always tell people that because (it) lets them know it’s possible to get back on your feet, it’s possible to get yourself back together if you were in such a low place like I was.”

Two years later and still living in the same apartment they moved into in 2018, Relly has found long-term success after the program.

“The fact that I’m in my own place right now is still like a dream to me, even though I’ve been here for two years,” he says. “But each time I come home there’s a smile on my face because I feel like I worked so hard to get this, you know what I mean? I’m doing okay.”

Having gone through the education programs offered by S.P.Y., Relly now works developing the “What I Need” (WIN) app, which acts as an all-encompassing resource guide for youth experiencing homelessness in LA.

Following the early success of the Host Home program, other agencies have adopted the same model. Alongside three other organizations, S.P.Y. received public funding from LAHSA and now supports a network of about 50 youth and host families within the program.

Unlike many other social services that have been hindered by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program and its network of host families has only grown within the last year.

“Before it used to be people (referring to host families) who were empty nesters or maybe people who were upper or middle class, or maybe folks who had an extra bedroom,” Gutierrez explains. “However, now during the pandemic we’re seeing an array of families reach out to us interested in hosting a youth because of the financial incentive that comes along with it and the support that they need to in order to prevent themselves from being homeless.”

With a $500 monthly stipend for each youth hosted, now more than ever the program serves to be mutually beneficial for host families and their guest. Following a background screening, volunteers receive additional training on positive youth development, trauma support and communication techniques from members of S.P.Y. who will also offer host families continuous support throughout the next 3 to 6 months.

Interested participants are invited to the “Host Home Meet & Learn” webinar on November 12 with program coordinator Andrew Gutierrez III. More information about the Host Homes programs can be found at www.safeplaceforyouth.org or by email at home@safeplaceforyouth.org.

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