CITYWIDE — Using a simple greeting and granola bar, Ron Hooks attempts to make a connection.
“Hey, how are you doing?” Hooks asks as he hands the granola bar to a homeless individual.
The act of offering food and a few simple introductory words can go a long way toward establishing a meaningful relationship with a stranger on the streets, building a rapport and perhaps helping a person begin the journey out of homelessness, showing them that someone cares.
Hooks calls it “the bridge.”
“It’s kind of hard for someone to get mad at you if you’re giving them a granola bar,” he said. “We might not engage much the first couple of times, but we prefer the friendly approach.”
Every weekday morning for the past 31 months, Hooks has canvassed the streets of Santa Monica, reaching out to every homeless person encountered on the daily route, asking how he can help them get off the streets, connecting them to the appropriate social service agency or in many cases, their families.
The executive director of West Coast Care has made it a mission to help the local homeless population since August of 2005 when he first came to Santa Monica on a family trip from San Francisco where he was the minister at the Providence Christian Center and oversaw an affiliated homeless services agency.
“We just didn’t expect that there would be so many homeless people here,” he said. “Usually they’re in other areas like Skid Row.”
For Hooks, the image of the homeless sleeping on the lawn in Palisades Park, fishing for coins on the Third Street Promenade, and camping out in front of businesses, was compelling enough to take action.
A year later, the Hooks family uprooted from San Francisco to the Westside and an organization dedicated to curing homelessness was born.
The organization operated on its own for the first several months, but often contacted the Santa Monica Police Department’s Homeless Liaison Program (HLP) Team when it witnessed problems such as fights. By February the following year, Hooks had become acquainted with each person on the HLP Team, eventually hired as a contracted employee of the SMPD in March of 2008.
The SMPD established the HLP Team in 1991 to address the community’s concern regarding the homeless issue. The team today consists of six officers who not only work to enforce the law, but collaborate with different agencies to help the homeless.
“It’s like the HLP Team was maybe 90 percent law enforcement and 10 percent social services and we were 90 percent social services and 10 percent law enforcement, even though we’re not police officers,” Hooks said.
Hooks begins his mornings around 9 a.m. under the Santa Monica Pier where he embarks on a three-hour bike ride, covering areas heavily populated with homeless people, including Main Street, Venice, Palisades Park and the Third Street Promenade, carrying anywhere from 50 to 75 granola bars and talking to just less than 100 individuals a day with the help of his son, Josh.
Sometimes he’s able to make a connection right away. In other cases it take months before someone acknowledges they need help. Some have talked to Hooks for years but have yet to ask for assistance.
“The longer they’re here, the tougher it is,” Hooks said. “In our model, we are concentrating on the people who are newly arriving because they are the easiest to engage.”
The approach has proven successful, helping more than 300 people off the streets, the majority of whom have not returned.
One of Hooks’ favorite success stories is about a man who after being homeless for two years in Santa Monica was reunited with his family in Atlanta, Ga.
“He had been in Palisades Park for two years,” Hooks said. “The more we talked to him, the friendlier he got.”
He remembers calling the man’s parents, asking if it was OK for their son to return home, an idea they openly embraced.
“I started talking to him and he said. ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’’ Hooks said.
The man returned back home to live with his parents, one of whom had fallen ill. Today he works as an attendant at a stadium in Atlanta.
Last week Hooks added another story to his list of favorites, this being about a man who was arrested on April 7 for illegally camping. Hooks and the HLP Team sent the man off in a bus the next day to be reunited with his family in Minneapolis, Minn.
Following the arrest, Hooks met with the homeless man and asked about his family, receiving just the first three digits of the mother’s phone number. A subsequent search turned up a name and phone number that matched.
Hooks plans on contacting the family in two weeks to see if he can offer any services. Another follow-up will come in about four months.
An ordained bishop with the Church of God, Hooks moved to San Francisco in 1994 from Charlotte, N.C. to start a church, opening the Providence Christian Center. It was in the Bay Area where he first became aware of the local homeless population.
During the opening day for the Providence Christian Center, Hooks hosted a church outreach function in which he offered free coffee and donuts. The church filled up with 150 homeless people, exceeding the 125-person capacity in the room.
In 1996, he started the Providence House, an affiliate of the Providence Christian Center.
Hooks said that the majority of people on the streets in Santa Monica are mentally ill or have a substance abuse problem. He hands out cards to these individuals, listing a directory of homeless service providers in the back, checking off the appropriate agency specializing in their particular issue, whether it’s Daybreak for women or CLARE for alcoholism.
He is always sure to come back and check up.
“We’ll always come back tomorrow,” he tells each person. “We’re not leaving you alone, and I mean that in a good way.”