A social worker delivers Thanksgiving meals — and comfort — to the formerly homeless in Santa Monica

By Danny Karel

“At a point, I decided to stop fighting it,” says Jazmin Johnson, a case manager with the St. Joseph Center. “I realized that social work is what I needed to do.”

It’s the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and Johnson is behind the wheel of a blue Dodge Caravan loaded with holiday groceries for her Westside clients. Each meal includes one large frozen turkey and a medley of pie crusts, stuffing mix, dried mashed potatoes, gravy in a can, mac-and-cheese, sweet corn and sliced peaches. This is Johnson’s second year delivering turkeys, but the program has been a tradition of the Venice-based housing and vocational services nonprofit for more than a decade.

In the back seat is Karalee Ensign, St. Joseph Center’s new events and communications manager. She left a perk-heavy job in music management to pursue a career in social work. In her mid-20s, a decade Johnson’s junior, Ensign was looking for firsthand experience with clients in the field. Asked why she left an enviable job, her response reflects a sentiment common among St. Joseph’s employees: “Once you get started,” she says, “it’s really hard to stop.”

Most of Johnson’s clients belong to the center’s Santa Monica CHP (Chronically Homeless Population) program. To qualify, a person must have lived on the streets for upwards of one year. “But most were out there for way longer,” she says. “Some more than 10.”

With the help of local police and St. Joseph’s street teams, the center is able to identify candidates for the program. They locate permanent housing, provide rehabilitation services and coach essential life skills. Case workers like Johnson check in periodically, pacify skeptical landlords and act as a stabilizing presence in their clients’ lives.

On the way to her second delivery in the Pico neighborhood, Johnson receives a call. Her ringtone — a warm and relaxing jazz melody — suits her. “Oh my God!” she says, leaning forward into the steering wheel. “I was just with him last week! Let me call him.” One of her clients has reportedly died. She calls, but no one answers. Her face darkens. On a tight schedule, she gathers herself and takes an elevator with Ensign up to the next apartment.

Inside is Marie Stone, a plainspoken and irrepressible woman in her 70s. She greets Johnson warmly and introduces her niece, Barbara, who had taken a bus from New Mexico to stay with her. Both slender and with heads of white hair, they look like twins born two decades apart. “We grew up on farms,” says Marie. “We’re used to roughing it.”

On the shelves are photos of a younger Marie — gorgeous, with long black hair and a playful smirk. “I used to be in the rodeo,” she says, breathing with the help of an oxygen tank. “I was a barrel racer.” She shows us photographs of herself riding a muscular white horse.

“Marie’s been with us for a long time,” Johnson explains on the way to the next delivery, near Third Street Promenade. “She was on the street for almost 10 years. She volunteered at the Santa Monica Farmers Market for the last 15 before her health caught up with her.”

The next client wasn’t home, but over the phone she refers to Johnson as “sweetie” and tells Johnson she loves her. “We’re their family,” explains Johnson, smiling. Another client, gruff and impatient, also caves to Johnson’s geniality. “You build a rapport,” she says. “They have to trust you with their IDs, their housing. They’ve just been let down so many times.”

A jazz melody again fills the air. Johnson answers, and it turns out the client she thought had passed is still alive. “Thank God,” she says. “I’ve already lost three this year.”

The job can be emotionally taxing, but Johnson insists that “it’s not even work” — more vocation than career. When the final Westside delivery is made, Johnson returns the van to the center’s parking lot. There is one turkey left, destined for a client in Los Angeles proper. She’ll deliver it on the way home.

“When you first approach potential clients on the street,” she says, letting Ensign hop out, “they tell you to go away. But when you don’t give in, they see that. Eventually, they give in and accept our services.”