A group of homeless Santa Monicans took a break from panhandling on a recent Thursday afternoon and huddled together behind Equinox on 2nd Court. One man showed off tricks he’d taught his newly adopted pet crow.
The crew was interrupted only by the occasional hum of a diesel engine, shuffling their feet to allow wide delivery trucks to squeeze through the alley behind the Third Street Promenade. Other than nervous drivers looking out for toes under wheels, no one among the mobs of passing tourists and business workers paid attention to the group.
Except for Zach Coil. It was just the kind of crew he and his new homeless outreach team was looking for.
While residents and visitors avert their gaze, Coil spends his days looking for fellow Californians panhandling on busy streets, sleeping on green lawns and hiding in alleyways. Coil directs Santa Monica’s new C3 team, a collection of social workers giving individual care to Santa Monica’s revolving homeless population. Each day Coil, program manager Matthew McAdams, case manager Laura Lemoine, and peer advocate Felix Garcia spend about five hours talking to every homeless person they can get to in the downtown core.
“We have this list of like 60 questions you can ask someone that might help them today,” Coil said. Those questions may help connect a person with an ID, a shelter bed or a doctor. With roughly 1,000 homeless individuals in Santa Monica’s eight-square-miles, Coil admits the problem can feel overwhelming.
“All of them have had some sort of traumatic experience prior to being homeless or following,” Coil said. “No one would choose this life.”
In the alley, Coil sat down to hear the complicated story of a young woman named Michelle. She said she was diagnosed bipolar but it was too dangerous to take her medication while living on the street. She worried carrying pills could make her a target for thieves. She also worried the sedative side effect of her meds would make her vulnerable to attack. But when Coil suggested nearby treatment centers that could provide a cot, she balked.
“I’m a grown woman,” she insisted, saying she hated the idea of having to follow the rules typically associated with board and care centers.
Michelle is one of the roughly thirty percent of Santa Monica’s homeless residents who are relatively new to the city at any given time. The C3 social workers say they meet new people every day.
“I got on a bus one day and I just wound up here,” Michelle said.
The city is contracting with Los Angeles County to provide the social workers as part of the Council’s $1.4 million plan to connect homeless residents with services. The team works with nonprofits (Coil is a Program Director for The People Concern, formerly called OPCC) and medical volunteers to provide aid and help move people toward housing as more beds come online through Proposition HHH funds. There are currently 24 HHH Projects in some stage of development, which will add 1,793 shelter beds in a county with roughly 40,000 people living on the streets.
In Palisades Park, Juan Alba picked through a trash can. He told Coil he came to Santa Monica on a whim and had been homeless for over a decade, ever since his parents locked him out as a teenager in Palmdale. He’d even had subsidized housing on Skid Row at one point, but eventually fell behind on rent and lost his apartment.
Alba said he has schizophrenia and self-medicates with marijuana. Even still, Coil thought he might be a good client for Safe Place for Youth, a Venice based coalition working to end youth homelessness. A few minutes into the conversation, however, Coil realized Alba was wrong about his own age. He was 26-years-old, not 25, making him too old for the youth shelter.
“It’s not a good sign when you’re 26 years old and you’re not sure how old you are,” Coil said as Alba walked away with a waiver to get a free copy of his license from the DMV. “That’s not good.”
Coil and his fellow social workers help where they can and then move on to the next person. A few minutes later, the team was talking to a veteran recently diagnosed with cancer who they’ve been trying to get chemotherapy. His reluctance to work with the Veterans Affairs made getting him treatment nearly impossible.
Back in the alley behind the Promenade, Michelle told Coil she hoped to repair the broken relationship with her sister in Washington state. Coil borrowed her smartphone for a few minutes and showed Michelle how to make a Facebook page. His thumbs then quickly found her sister’s profile, so he sent her a message with Michelle’s phone number and handed the homeless woman back her phone.
He said if her sister would accept her back into her life, he could get her a free bus ticket to get where she needed to go. He and his team planned to hit up the alley again later in the week to follow up on their efforts
“I don’t really see people as victims,” Coil said. “They’re struggling. They’re fighting. They’re survivors. They’ve dealt with far more than I’ve ever dealt with.”