Ron Hooks, executive director of West Coast Care in Santa Monica, CA, spends his days driving a utility vehicle up and down the beach. More than half of the city’s homeless residents sleep there. Hooks stops and talks to as many of them as he can. Better known as Pastor Ron, he tells each unsheltered person he meets on the beach and on the streets of the city, that he can help them get back home to their families.
For many people Hooks meets, substance use plays a part in their being without a home. Drug and alcohol use can be both a cause and an effect of not having stable housing. Mental illness, which affects one in five U.S. adults at any given time, also raises chances of homelessness. People who have been in prison face greater chances of homelessness, too.
But a person doesn’t have to use drugs, have a criminal history, or have a mental health condition to lose their housing. High costs alone can push many individuals and families onto the street.
“Many people are just one missed paycheck, one divorce, one lost child, or one life-altering event away from homelessness,” says Sgt. Erika Aklufi, who leads the Santa Monica Police Department’s Homelessness Liaison Program.
Soup kitchens and shelters help people survive the day-to-day challenges of homelessness. But they don’t provide a path out. West Coast Care is among several innovative organizations around the country that provide unhoused people with second chances at life through job opportunities, health education, long-term housing, and mediation to repair relationships with estranged relatives.
We take a look at West Coast Care and three other organizations working to provide lasting solutions to homelessness.
Santa Monica, CA
Often, people going through homelessness think that they have burned every bridge back to their families. West Coast Care’s mission is to reunite them with those family members.
Hooks founded the organization in 2006. When he visited Santa Monica for the first time in 2005, while living in San Francisco, he was struck by the number of people living on the beach. Over the next year, on several return visits to this beachfront city, he spent time getting to know the people who lived outside.
Hooks and his wife permanently relocated there in 2006. They wanted to launch a nonprofit to help the people they’d met, but they didn’t know what its mission would be. Then, a man from Atlanta named Moses asked Hooks if he could help him get back home. Hooks covered the man’s bus fare and came away with the mission for his family-run, nonprofit organization.
Repairing broken relationships, Hooks says, is a key to keeping people out of homelessness long term. When unsheltered people can get back to their families or other personal support systems, they bypass shelters and other temporary housing. This reduces the total time that a person spends unhoused. That’s a crucial defense against homelessness.
“Once someone has been homeless for a long time, helping them becomes harder and more expensive,” says Mike Bonin, councilmember, 11th District, City of Los Angeles. Bonin says that homelessness is one of the issues that his constituents care about most as it affects every part of Los Angeles.
The city of Santa Monica, located in Los Angeles County, has a mission to end homelessness as well. It will pay the bus fare to send people living on its beaches and streets back to their families. Hooks often helps mediates the truces that make those homecomings possible.
“Ron is out providing direction. He’s a very kind signpost pointing people in the direction they need to go,” Aklufi says.
Hooks, frequently accompanied by his son, may visit unhoused people multiple times before they accept his help. In the meantime, he addresses their other needs to the best of his ability. He always gives out hygiene kits filled with toiletries that allow people to clean up no matter where they sleep.
When people accept Hooks’s offer of mediation, he asks them for the phone numbers of parents, siblings, spouses—anyone who may have once turned them away but might be ready to take them back in. Maybe in one call or over the course of several, Hooks negotiates a way for the family to welcome their lost member back.
“You don’t know until you try, but we always try to rebuild that bridge home,” Hooks says. “Because, it’s got to be somewhere in their hearts that eventually, after all the hurt has passed, you want to know how your family member is doing.”
Every year, West Coast Care reunites about 300 to 400 unsheltered people in Santa Monica with their families all over the country.
“It’s difficult work, but I believe it is absolutely the best work we can do,” he says.
Grand Rapids, MI
Not everyone has family that can or will take them in. For these individuals, finding permanent housing can be hard. Many affordable options for people in transition out of homelessness have multiple requirements for entry—pages of forms, documentation, government-issued ID. Just the fee to replace a long-lost ID card can be an insurmountable obstacle for people coming out of shelters or off the streets.
“They need to stabilize first and then they can go and acquire those lost documents later,” says John Glover, executive director of Well House in Grand Rapids, MI.
Well House removes some of those barriers to permanent housing.
The nonprofit owns 15 properties around the city that it rents at cut-rate prices (or offers for free under some circumstances) to people who lack homes. The properties, purchased through grants, donations, and rent revenue, include single-family houses and communal living situations that house around 65 tenants.
Marian Clements founded Well House in 1977. When she was unemployed and homeless herself, the Quaker community took her in. After she was back on her feet, Clements wanted to create a similar refuge for others in the same situation.
Well House has just a couple requirements for tenants: Pay your rent and respect the property, your roommates, and the staff. “With those basic rules, we minimize the barriers to permanent housing for most people,” Glover says.
The tenants, who include single men, teens and young adults, and families, can learn new skills by helping with property renovations and maintenance if they choose. Recent residents have learned landscaping, gardening, farming, carpentry, and other skills that have led to new jobs. Some tenants stay at Well House for many years. But, on average, they stay about 18 months, until they have the stability to rent or buy their own homes.
“Anyone can suffer a fall that sends them over the edge,” Glover says, “but with just a little help, they can climb out.”
Getting a home and staying in it requires income. But sometimes employers won’t take a chance on an applicant whose current or previous address is a homeless shelter. Phoenix Woodworking, founded in 2017, takes those kinds of chances on every new hire. The public benefit corporation produces handmade woodcrafts -- ornaments, cedar-scented air fresheners, cutting boards -- in a woodshop in Lawrence, KS.
“We only hire people who are facing obstacles to employment -- people from homeless shelters, people who are insecurely housed, people who have a criminal record. Most of them have a little of all of that,” says Shine Adams, founder and executive director.
When Adams, a recovering alcoholic, stopped drinking nine years ago, he didn’t think anyone would give him a job. “But I did manage to get hired, and I wanted to be the type of person who would do that for somebody else. Everybody deserves a chance.”
He soon had the opportunity to give someone that chance. Newly sober and employed, Adams took up woodworking as a hobby. He then learned that a friend in his 12-step program couldn’t get a job because he had a gap on his resume from when he was in jail. Adams offered to hire the friend for a couple hours a week to organize his woodshop.
“After a few weeks of working with me in my basement woodshop, he added that experience to his resume and he got another job,” Adams says. The win-win business model soon became Phoenix Woodworking. The corporation supports itself through wholesale and individual sales and charitable donations.
Employees learn woodworking. But, perhaps more important, they earn a line to put on their resume and a name to use as a reference -- a boon for someone without a consistent employment history.
Phoenix employs about three to four people at a time. Many follow the path of that first helper in Adams’s basement. Adams tells the story of a man from Lawrence with a “checkered history and a bad reputation.” Because he couldn’t get a job, he couldn’t move past that history and reputation. But Adams took a chance on the man, who worked at Phoenix part time for two years. He now has a full-time job and can support himself, his wife, and their child.
Bel Inizio, Italian for “beautiful beginning,” provides women in Houston with tools for long-term success. The nonprofit brings an eight-week fitness and nutrition program to women in prisons, shelters, and other transitional housing. The mission is to help disadvantaged women, including many who are or have been homeless, develop confidence and life skills. Twice a week, the women attend a wellness presentation followed by a walk or run of increasing distance. The program culminates in a 5K race. In its 10 years of operation, the organization has served more than 700 women.
Women who sign up to participate learn to make and keep commitments and to set and achieve goals. “That gives them confidence they didn’t have before to apply for jobs,” says Theresa Strong, founder and director, “and the discipline to show up and keep the job.”
Sharon Hadley, an alumnus of Bel Inizio, gives the organization credit for teaching her how to take care of herself after decades spent between homelessness, shelters, and prison. “I hadn’t fed myself in years. I didn’t know how to get back to that place. I was always either not eating because I was getting high or I was incarcerated or in a shelter where someone else fed me,” she says. Hadley now works as a recovery coach at The Council on Recovery in Houston.
Many of the women in Bel Inizio have lost everything before they join the program. Strong knows what that’s like. In 2009, over the course of 60 days, her husband died of brain cancer, her employer went bankrupt, and her dog ran away. It was her daily runs that kept her going.
“Finishing a run gave me a gold star for the day in a landscape where I didn’t see anything positive,” Strong says. She wanted to bring that feeling of accomplishment to other women facing hopelessness.
Some women who join Bel Inizio, Strong says, never knew the satisfaction of a personal achievement before running the 5K.
“One young woman told me, as we ran toward the finish line, ‘I lost my children. My family doesn’t talk to me. I haven’t gotten my GED. I can’t stay sober. I’ve never accomplished anything. I am going to accomplish this.’ Now she knows what the future can look like.”
Homelessness by the Numbers
567,715: Number of people who were homeless on any given night last year.
35,038: Number of youth who were homeless on any given night last year.
37,058: Number of veterans who were homeless on any given night last year.
7 in 10: Number of homeless individuals who are men or boys.
30%: Percentage of homeless population made up of families with children.
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