As someone who had difficulty finding a stable place to live for many years, John Heath traveled around the country while working a number of different jobs.
Heath says that way of life, coupled with his longtime struggle with bipolar disorder, were factors that led to him becoming homeless for the past three years.
ìStability has never been for me,î said Heath, 45.
Staying in one place has not been his ìstrongpoint,î says Heath, as he has traveled to nearly every state and worked a variety of jobs such as construction and landscaping. But he says that has all changed, as he has gotten off the streets and received some newfound stability as one of the residents of the new Step Up on Fifth housing facility in Santa Monica.
Heath and 43 other tenants who struggle with homelessness and mental illness have moved into the social service organization Step Up on Secondís new apartment building at 1548 Fifth St. The organization, which provides services to people with a chronic mental illness, opened the five-story facility Thursday, March 26th.
Step Up on Fifth provides permanent supportive housing to 44 residents and includes two units for live-in resident managers. Thirty-three of the units are dedicated to individuals who have been chronically homeless and diagnosed with a mental illness, Step Up chief executive officer Tod Lipka said.
Lipka noted that the facility helps provide the tenants with a solution to the homelessness issue, as ìthe answer to homelessness starts with housing.î
ìPart of our efforts is to address homelessness in our community,î Lipka said. ìThis is one person at a time, 44 times.î
Step Up representatives, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development representatives and local elected officials including Mayor Ken Genser and county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky attended a ceremony March 26th to mark the opening of the Step Up on Fifth building.
ìProviding permanent supportive housing to homeless persons with mental health needs is one of our societyís most vexing challenges,î Yaroslavsky said. ìStep Up on Secondís partnership with Los Angeles County in providing specialized supportive services to the most vulnerable homeless among us is a successful model that can and should be replicated throughout our region.î
The new facility was designed by the architecture firm Pugh and Scarpa and was developed in partnership with A Community of Friends. Among the features of the building are a communal kitchen, community rooms for peer support groups and a computer training center.
Groups that provided donations for the Step Up facility include the Ahmanson Foundation, Annenberg Foundation, Weingart Foundation and George Hoag Family Foundation, which contributed $500,000. Chuck Smith, executive director of the George Hoag Foundation, said the facility has a ìmarvelous design on a very small footprint.î
ìClearly permanent housing is such a difficult thing to have for people with homelessness and mental health issues and hopefully this gives people a hand up,î Smith said.
Heath praised the new Step Up building, saying the setup of the units is comfortable with a microwave and refrigerator, and he finally has a place that feels like home.
ìWhen youíve been living on the streets and you finally get some place to live, itís a different feeling,î he said. ìI love it. Itís like being at home now.î
Heath has received services from Step Up on Second for the past nine months and has been involved with the kitchen and Santa Monica Farmers Market. He says his condition is being effectively treated with medication and he credits the social service organization with helping to drastically improve his life.
ìItís made (my life) 100 times better,î Heath said of Step Up. ìIíve got some place safe to sleep and if I need help, I know where to go. Itís been a tremendous experience.î
Lipka noted how the housing facility is within walking distance from the Step Up service center, where tenants can receive treatment. The Step Up program is designed to provide support for people with mental illness to help them manage their skills and become more productive in the community, he said.
While mental illness does not have a cure, housing can provide an ìimportant springboard to the recovery processî for those who are homeless, Lipka said. When people are no longer homeless they can begin to enhance their lives in other ways, such as attending school or getting a job, he added.
ìThis is what itís all been about for years. Giving homes to people is all that really matters,î Lipka said.