The exterior of the Step Up on Fifth Street building Thursday afternoon. Designed by Santa Monica firm Pugh + Scarpa Architects, the 30,000 square foot housing development includes subterranean parking for 23 spaces, a ground floor that could include an art gallery and computer training lab, and four stories of apartments above, containing 46 SROs altogether. (photo by Brandon Wise)

FIFTH STREET — At 52 years old and living on his own, Craig Blasingane found himself in unfamiliar terrain.

He might have in the past been an entrepreneur and owner of three houses, but when it came time to move into a single-room occupancy unit last month after spending eight years homeless, Blasingane just felt out of his element.

“It’s a little shaky at first because you are by yourself,” he said. “I was a little nervous because in transitional housing, you have lots of people.”

Blasingane is one of 33 members of Step Up on Second who have moved into the nonprofit organization’s newest housing development for individuals with mental illnesses since it opened in the 1500 block of Fifth Street last month.

Tucked between an auto body shop and the Salvation Army’s Silvercrest Residence for seniors, Step Up on Fifth finally opened its doors at the end of February, nearly two years after the estimated $17 million project broke ground. A grand opening is scheduled for March 26.

Designed by Santa Monica firm Pugh + Scarpa Architects, the 30,000-square-foot housing development includes subterranean parking for 23 vehicles, a ground floor that could include an art gallery and computer training lab, and four stories of apartments above, containing 46 SROs altogether.

Each unit is roughly 300 square feet and comes with a full bathroom, kitchenette and Murphy bed, which folds up into the wall. Alternating floors come equipped with a laundry room and the building has two community rooms that have a full kitchen.

While the building is not expected to be LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] by the U.S. Green Building Council, it was constructed with sustainable elements in mind, said Tod Lipka, the chief executive director of Step Up.

Those elements include a design that maximizes shade and natural ventilation, and use of green materials, such as non-VOC paint, recycled-content carpet, and natural linoleum flooring.

One of the design features that has caught the attention of some tenants is a perforated mesh material that wraps around the building.

“As one of our tenants said, it’s like putting arms around,” Lipka said. “It creates a sense of containment, having our own little mini community inside the community.”

The nonprofit purchased the land, which was formerly a parking lot, about eight years ago out of an initiative to create more supportive housing, understanding the link between permanent shelter and recovery for their members, many of whom were homeless.

City Hall provided a $7.1 million loan toward the project, the remainder of which was funded by Step Up, state tax credits, grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and several organizations, including the Annenberg Foundation and the Ahmanson Foundation.

The residential complex is the latest development to come online for Step Up, which, in addition to its headquarters on Second Street, also operates a center for members between the ages of 18-28 who experience mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia.

Step Up on Fifth comes staffed with two onsite managers who are part of the transition team. Members also have a case manager and access to outreach workers, all of whom help the tenants acclimate to their new surroundings.

“When you’re homeless and you’re trying to survive, you don’t have any other kinds of responsibilities you have with a house like paying rent and keeping your place organized and clean,” Lipka said. “People need help and support.”

Blasingane knows first hand how difficult it can be to go from transitional to permanent housing.

After owning a business for 24 years, he ended up homeless, developing an addiction to drugs and alcohol and suffering from depression.

“Everything spiraled out of control and I hit bottom,” he said.

He came to Samoshel and was later referred to Turning Point transitional housing from where he landed at Step Up.

“I’m used to it now,” Blasingane said. “It’s very tranquil, I’m able to go in and out, and there’s security.

“Everything is positive about this place.”

The rent for the new units are set at $833 a month, most of which is subsidized by the federal government. The tenants pay no more than 30 percent of their income toward the rent, with the subsidy paying the difference, Lipka said.

Most tenants make about $10,000 to $12,000 annually, translating to a contribution of about $325 a month.

Blasingane provides maintenance service for both Step Up on Second and the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market.

Les Jones, a member who also serves on the organization’s board of directors, said that housing provides a sense of stability, noting the difficulty in finding a job when a homeless individual is just getting off the streets.

“It’s very hard to do things when you’ve got to carry your life on your back and so I think it’s important that housing adds a stable point to really doing something with your life,” Jones said.

He has lived at Step Up on Second for the past six years, suffering from severe depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.

Jones said that it took him about a year to go from sleeping on the floor to the bed.

“There is this whole mentality that you have to overcome,” he said. “It’s hard to explain to people who have never slept on the street for any length of time, the mentality that you are lower than pond scum and feeling this on a constant basis.”

He eventually began talking with other members at the organization and realized that they shared similar feelings.

Jones is planning on running a support group at Step Up on Fifth to help members learn that they are not alone in their battles.

“Just because your environment changes doesn’t mean your mentality changes right away,” he said. “I want to let them know that they can work through this, it’s a process … and most of all, they are not alone in it.”

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