Alison Hurst founded Safe Place for Youth as the Westside’s first dedicated service provider for homeless youth and, after 10 years of exceptional growth, has decided it is time to move on.
When Hurst began her work SPY was nothing more than a group of volunteers handing out bags of food and clothes to homeless youth in Venice Beach.
A decade later it has expanded into an organization with over 80 employees providing housing, case management, street outreach, health and wellness support, and education and employment programs to over 1,500 youths a year.
“The decision to launch something was born out of the shock, frustration and horror that young people were living in the streets and not receiving the services that they needed,” said Hurst. “In my wildest dreams I never imagined that it would be the organization that it is today.”
On Jan. 12, Hurst announced that she and her husband will be moving back to the UK in August to be closer to family and is looking for a suitable replacement to spearhead the next era of leadership at SPY.
While the organization has transformed over the past decade the principles of “care and connection” and a “low barrier approach” have always been at the core of SPY’s work.
Under this philosophy, outreach workers forge relationships with homeless youth and place them as leaders in building their own pathway off the street and into stable and prosperous lives. SPY also employs many formerly homeless individuals to support young people currently going through their programs.
Hurst’s work has not always been met with thanks. Many community members strongly oppose the expansion of homeless housing units in the neighborhood and believe they increase crime and attract more encampments.
“I’ve always lived in Mar Vista, and the whole time I’ve been here for 20 years the pushback and the NIMBYism against any kind of resources in this community has been incredibly painful,” said Hurst. “But every time I get to sit with a young person whose life has been transformed because of their own resilience and access to our services it makes it all worth it.”
SPY has recently come under criticism for its role as a service provider at the Venice Bridge Home — a 154 bed transitional housing project operated by the City of Los Angeles, which opened in late February 2020.
In its first nine months of operation, LAPD reported an 88 percent increase in violent crime in the area around the shelter, and statistics provided by CD-11 Venice Field Deputy Nisa Kove reported that only seven residents transitioned into permanent housing during the shelter’s first six months of operation.
While these numbers paint a stark picture, Hurst does not feel like the home is a failure and said there is much more to the story.
“I think it’s a huge success,” said Hurst. “We launched the bridge and the pandemic happened literally two weeks afterwards, so I think it’s remarkable what we’ve been able to do.”
Hurst said that while SPY provides services to people living in the home, it has no authority over encampments outside the shelter. The City of LA promised increased security and sanitization enforcement would be provided by specially trained LAPD officers in the four block radius of the shelter, but this has not occurred.
In response to the increase in crime surrounding the shelter, Hurst pointed to the lack of enforcement services and the reduction of police presence. She said crime has been on the rise all around Venice during the pandemic and that it cannot be directly attributed to the Bridge Home.
“I firmly believe that the Bridge is a positive thing for the community,” said Hurst. “If you’re lucky like me to visit and meet and speak with the residents, you’ll know immediately that people are thriving.”
Through the Bridge Home and SPY’s expansion of its pregnant and parenting housing program, the organization has been able to increase the number of youths it houses by 115 percent in the last year.
Hurst hopes that going forward SPY will continue expanding the number of beds it can provide to homeless youth. Hurst is looking for a replacement who will understand the importance of having the community build homeless solutions together and will be focused on racial equity and inclusion.
“It’s been an incredible honor and privilege to do this work for the last 10 years,” said Hurst. “The people that I’ve met along the way that show up day in and day out, because they care so deeply about folks experiencing homelessness just blow me away. The young folks that we serve and their resiliency overcoming trauma just blow me away.”