DOWNTOWN — Lakers all-NBA guard Kobe Bryant and his wife Vanessa are teaming up with Santa Monica-based Step Up on Second to battle homelessness and improve the lives of youths and families in need.

The Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation will initially focus on homeless youth in Los Angeles, the Bryants said Tuesday at a news conference at My Friend’s Place, a drop-in center for homeless youth in Hollywood.

“On my way to games, I noticed children and families living on the streets blocks away from where I play and it didn’t sit well with me,” Kobe Bryant said. “I wanted to help make a difference in homelessness and what better place to start than in my own backyard.”

The foundation will support organizations and programs that help create permanent housing and provide resources for education and career development.

One of those organizations is Step Up on Second, which began providing psychosocial rehabilitation and support to people affected by severe and persistent mental illness since 1984. Step Up has been successful in constructing permanent, supportive housing for homeless individuals suffering from mental illness, converting in 2009 an old motel on Santa Monica Boulevard near 26th Street into Daniel’s Village, which provides eight housing units for adults, ages 18 to 24.

City Hall contributed $2 million to the $2.4 million project.

The program was spawned from Daniel’s Place, a drop-in center geared toward the same demographic that has served more than 400 clients since it was founded 13 years ago, offering support groups for clients and families and individual consultations.

“[Kobe] talked about solving this problem, so I think that is amazing,” said Tod Lipka, executive director of Step Up who joined the Bryants in Hollywood Tuesday. “With someone like Kobe and Vanessa giving a voice to this issue, we can really raise the awareness and bring about solutions that will move us closer to ending homelessness in L.A.”

There are an estimated 9,500 youth living on the streets in Los Angeles, with roughly 824 in the communities of Santa Monica, Malibu and West Los Angeles, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

“You could tell that Kobe and Vanessa were so empathetic about the experiences these youth have and the significant challenges they face,” said Lipka, who participated in a discussion with the Bryants and homeless youth at My Friend’s Place.

Lipka said he is looking forward to collaborating with the foundation as it creates and distributes a public service announcement campaign intended to educate the public about youth homelessness. The foundation, which will also raise funds by soliciting donors, is still in the research phase.

As a father of two, Bryant said the issue “just hits home,” and the he was “shocked” to learn of the number of homeless youth in L.A.

“What I do in the game of basketball is easy compared to what they have to go through,” said Bryant. “What they have to go through, that’s real determination to be able to have that fight to say, ‘I’m still going to make it.’”

kevinh@www.smdp.com

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