There are many sayings about home, we have all heard them. “Home for the holidays.” “There is no place like home.” “Home sweet home.” But, how about, “home is where recovery is?”
For the last four years, West Coast Care (WCC), a nonprofit service agency working with the Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD), has helped the homeless break the cycle of homelessness by empowering them to reestablish contact with family and friends.
Ron Hooks, WCC’s founder and executive director, came to Santa Monica on vacation with his family seven years ago. Hooks (who has a PhD in counseling psychology and was the executive director of Providence House, a drug and alcohol treatment center in San Francisco) couldn’t help but notice that Santa Monica “had a lot of homeless people.”
A year later, Hooks headed back here and created West Coast Care.
“It all began with a desire to open a resource center for the homeless somewhere in Santa Monica,” he told me. “Day after day, we hit the streets and talked to people. We asked them what they really needed, what services would best serve them and where was the best location to offer assistance.”
WCC’s team established relationships with hundreds of homeless individuals — including Santa Monica’s most chronic — and “we promised to help them any way we could,” he related.
“One homeless man told me, ‘This is as real as it gets. You’re taking it to the street!’ The homeless told us we were making a big difference by bringing the resources to them. For us, it was no longer about the location of a building, but connecting with the homeless where they live — on a daily basis. We’ve been on the streets ever since. After only a few weeks, we had helped several people who had been on the streets for years to go back home and reconnect with their families. Several others went into housing or treatment centers.
“Santa Monica has many similarities to San Francisco — one being almost all the homeless are from somewhere else. It was up north, at the rehab, that we also realized that people who were graduating from our program and who reconnected with family and friends had a much higher rate of continued success,” Hooks said. “Here, if you’re homeless, it’s almost impossible to start over. With the cost of living so high, any motivation to succeed quickly begins to deteriorate. Many of the homeless find the obstacles overwhelming and give up.”
Almost since its inception, Hooks and his staff have been working alongside the SMPD’s Homeless Liaison Program (HLP team). Four years ago, a specific outreach program was created that allowed WCC to provide outreach by directly working with the department’s HLP officers. For their services, West Coast Care receives an annual grant from the city Of Santa Monica.
WCC’s outreach program is compassionate, practical and effective. Several cities in California have copied the model because of its success. The program has even become a valuable part of the community. Local residents and business owners also rely on WCC for homeless-related help, advice and information.
Last year, the City Council approved the purchase of an electric Polaris all-terrain vehicle so WCC could expand its outreach to all areas of the beach.
“On the sand is where we find the largest percentage of the people we eventually help because that’s where most new arrivals go first to camp and sleep,” he said. “Reaching out to new arrivals who are often lonely and vulnerable in unfamiliar surroundings and wondering if they made the right decision in coming here is important to our success.“
When reestablishing contact with family is not possible or the best option, WCC assists individuals by referring them to local and regional service providers, such as OPCC, St. Joseph Center or the Veterans Administration.
“They’re usually thankful for the quality and amount of resources we’re able to offer,” he said.
Hooks stressed, “Our statistics seem to indicate that people are far better off and more likely to break the cycle of homelessness or addiction when they’re in familiar surroundings and close to significant people in their lives. The majority of people helped to go home are still there on our final follow-up.”
Hooks revealed to me that 85 percent are improving their lives with the help of relatives or friends. And, with less than 1 percent returning to Santa Monica, I think it’s an amazing success story!
How successful has WCC been in helping homeless persons go home? In the 2011-12 fiscal year, they reunited 353 folks with family and/or friends. That’s 353 homeless off Santa Monica’s streets in one year.
A total of 129 of the 353 received support from City Hall’s Human Services Division’s Project Homecoming which included travel subsidies. The remaining individuals received their travel support from relatives or friends.
West Coast Care still accepts donations from the public. Some of these donations provide meal vouchers and personal needs such as clean clothing for those returning home across the country.
“You’ll never know what you’ll run across,” mused Hooks. “Once we bought an older gentleman a couple of tires for his camper van so he could drive back to Portland, Ore. He’d been forced to camp on our streets for months only because he couldn’t afford to replace his tires.”
West Coast Care, a 501(c)(3) tax deductible nonprofit, has a website: www.westcoastcare.org for more information or to donate.
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org