CLOVERFIELD BLVD — A new business selling eastern-influenced artwork has blossomed at a local homeless services provider, giving clients both self-esteem and community.

Safe Haven Designs, founded by a formerly homeless individual, makes and sells paintings of a classical Buddhist artform for the benefit of mentally-ill homeless.

The business is completely client-driven and funded.

Safe Haven, a project housed at OPCC for which the business is named, only provides “encouragement and space,” said Luther Richert, director of Safe Haven.

The Safe Haven program in Santa Monica is one of 100 across the country funded through the federal Housing and Urban Development department. Safe Haven’s mission is to reach long-term, chronically homeless individuals with mental disabilities that make them hardest to help, Richert said.

“We meet clients where they’re at,” Richert said. “Working a Safe Haven is not a desk job.”

Clients are encouraged to initiate projects as a form of empowerment, Richert said, like the art sales and a community garden project.

“We build people’s self-esteem and make them feel they have a voice. We’re not telling them what to do, we’re listening,” Richert said.

Timothy Caldwell, an alumni of Safe Haven, founded Safe Haven Designs as a way to engage residents and members of the program, and raise money for annual activities like a trip to the county fair and picnic.

They used to do car washes, but had to stop because of liability issues, Caldwell said. That left the redemption of recyclables collected from the center as the only source of income for residents, a laborious activity that earned just $60 a month.

When Caldwell stumbled upon the eastern artform of “mandalas,” he found a solution to the clients’ money problems.

The word mandala means circle in the Indian language of Sanskrit.

According to the Mandala Project, a nonprofit that promotes peace through art and education, a mandala is any integrated structure organized around a unifying center.

Most mandalas are circular with a repeating pattern that converges on one focal point. The artform is traditionally used as a form of meditation and healing.

Multiple people can collaborate on a mandala at the same time, which makes the artform perfect for a group environment like Safe Haven where organizers put a high premium on community building.

At the same time, it’s not an activity they have access to in their daily lives.

Chronically homeless individuals don’t have the security to buy or store art supplies without fear of having them stolen. Bringing the homeless together under the umbrella of Safe Haven to make art removes one of those barriers, and allows them to express themselves, Caldwell said.

Most importantly, however, mandalas are simple to put together, which makes it easier for Safe Haven Designs’ artists to approach the new challenge.

“You can take someone with no artistic talent, and create something beautiful,” Caldwell said.

That’s how Caldwell felt when he found Paul Heussenstamm, a mandala artist based in Laguna Beach, Calif. who teaches workshops on how to begin making mandalas.

“Mandala Paul” told Caldwell that he could teach anybody to make gallery-quality art, Caldwell said.

Caldwell took the courses Heussenstamm offered, brought the knowledge back to Safe Haven and began producing artwork.

It took off. Safe Haven Designs has eight artists producing pieces priced between $25 and $80 a pop, which are sold in Venice Beach, various locations throughout Santa Monica and, for the first time, online at

Caldwell made his first online sale Wednesday.

Artists get approximately $5 for every hour of their work through the sales, Caldwell estimated.

It’s a far cry from how he used to make money, playing chess in the park.

“That was long, hard work, but I had to play chess to feed myself,” Caldwell said.

As acknowledgment of the group grows, Caldwell aims to pump up the volume and drop the price to encourage sales, as well as expand the repertoire beyond the lotus flower design and utilize symbols from other religions and ideologies in an attempt to be more inclusive.

Although the money is helpful, the payoff for Safe Haven Designs’ workers is intangible.

“We’re not greedy, although it is a source of income,” Caldwell said. “It’s really about building community and self-esteem.”

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