Erika Hartman

Safe Place for Youth (SPY) welcomed a new Executive Director on Aug. 2 after their founder returned to her native England.
Erika Hartman takes over the lead of the program from Allison Hurst who founded the program 10 years ago.

Hurst recently returned to her home in England, but when she came to Venice a decade ago, she noticed that there were no homeless services that adequately helped youth and hence created SPY. She started with giving out basic resources and passing out food and water out of the back of her car and then eventually, created the Venice space.

Hartman brings 15 years of non-profit leadership supporting people experiencing homelessness and underserved youth. Most recently, she served as the Chief Program Officer of the Downtown Women’s Center, a Los Angeles-based homeless services organization, and previously acted as the Chief Program Officer of Allies for Every Child, a LA-based child welfare organization.

Currently, she serves on the board of the LA Homeless Services Authority, the LA Central Providers Collaborative board, the University of Southern California LGTBQ Alumni board, and the Homeless Policy and Research Institute’s Race Equity Committee.

“I was working at a community clinic providing therapy, a lot of the folks that I was serving were unhoused, and I think that was sort of where I really started to get a real understanding of the life stories and my career trajectory as a therapist, took me into working in various different types of youth services that were really all ultimately potential pipelines for homelessness,” Hartman said. “I was commuting from the east side of Los Angeles to the west side, and I just saw homelessness progressively spread and it went from just a handful of off ramps and underpasses to being just about everywhere, and I really like got to a place where I wanted to be part of the solution. I am inspired by the resilience of young people. I just couldn’t continue to see it [youth homelessness] day in and day out and not be doing something about it. So, in some ways, I think it was just sort of that Aha moment: how can I use my skills and background to do something about it.”

Hartman first stepped onto SPY’s campus approximately six years ago and simply fell in love with what the organization stands for.
“We [SPY] are the last line of defense for folks,” she said. “We can be what stands between youth having fulfilling and thriving lives and potentially dying on the street.”

The new executive director explained that a lot of the children SPY helps are failed by adults and building that trust with them is one of the biggest hurdles and, ultimately the avenue through which you connect them to the support.

“All the pipelines that cause homelessness have some level of trauma tied to them and then the experience of being homeless, has its own layer of exploitation and just horrific things that happen to homeless youth,” Hartman said. “We have a significant number of staff who were either former members of our service or have themselves previously experienced homelessness. And so I think that there’s a lot of people who are really courageous in sharing those stories and for a lot of folks not necessarily having seen somebody like that be successful and not having had that role model so I think young people, see people who have had similar experiences to them and feel a level of comfort and a level of understanding, and they are more able to have some of those conversations.”

Of course there are times where beginning those difficult conversations are handled in a different way. Hartman and SPY refer to the method as their enrichment and empowerment programs.
“Something that really draws young folks is the opportunity to participate in things like music, painting and creative writing. And, in part because nothing’s asked of them, they don’t have to talk to anybody, they don’t have to tell anybody anything,” she said. “There is like a therapeutic element to just participating in the activity. It gives our team an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, tell me about that piece! What does it mean to you ?’ It allows us to learn about the person through their creation.”

SPY currently helps 1,200 to 1,500 homeless youth each year. The organization sees infants oftentimes belonging to young parents and children of all ages. Hartman explained that education and work experience is the best way to get someone out of homelessness. She also cautioned that not every child is physically or mentally able to work and attend school and SPY must not forget about these individuals either.
Hartman and SPY are looking to combat youth homelessness by identifying areas where there’s the most need for education and employment and want to expand our housing opportunities along with being cognizant of the different pipelines that contribute to homelessness.

Currently, SPY is funded by the government, but only 70% of their services get covered after the funding is received. Community members can contribute to helping youth homelessness by donating at https://www.safeplaceforyouth.org.

Community members who want to help can also drop off food, water and clothes to 2469 Lincoln Blvd.

daniel@smdp.com