Pastor James Fleming is sick and tired of walking past unhoused individuals slumped on the streets of Santa Monica when he knows there are services ready to help them.
As a Lieutenant in the Santa Monica Salvation Army Corps, he assists many of the individuals who line up outside of his office on a daily basis, but Fleming wants to do more to reach those who don’t know how to reach him. Now, thanks to a $250,000 grant from Providence Saint John’s Health Center he will be able to bring resources directly to unhoused individuals through the launch of a street outreach team.
“I expect this team to have a ton of compassion and go out of their way to find the reasons why these guys aren’t getting the help they need,” said Fleming, later adding “we come across a myriad of problems and usually if you can knock down a few of the barriers that they’re seeing you can easily find them some help.”
His team will be staffed by two case workers, who will be equipped with phones, a tablet, a comprehensive list of regional services and a van. They will travel the streets of the city taking the time to get to know unhoused individuals and helping them overcome the hurdles to accessing shelter and services.
This concept is not new to Santa Monica, which already has a host of street outreach workers engaging with unhoused residents. These include teams staffed by The People Concern, the Santa Monica Police Department, Venice Family Clinic, Saint Joseph’s Center, West Coast Care and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
Fleming does not see his team as usurping these efforts, but acting as a complementary force that also has something a little different to offer. As a small team acting with independent funding, he wants his outreach workers to be nimble and flexible in their approach and take advantage of being unbeholden to bureaucratic restrictions.
“We’re not just cut and dry, like ‘oh you don’t qualify, bye’,” said Fleming. “Like if a guy doesn’t have his ID on him, I’m still going to go out of my way to help him, so I expect this team to have a ton of compassion and go out of their way to find the reasons why these guys aren’t getting the help they need.”
The Salvation Army outreach team will connect people to services offered within its own organization such as food, shelter, addiction treatment, counseling and job training. It will also connect individuals to resources offered through the broader Los Angeles network of homeless service providers.
In particular, Fleming’s team will target gaps in current outreach efforts by providing personalized attention to help individuals navigate the sometimes very complex requirements to access shelter or treatment.
To this end, a significant portion of the $250,000 in start-up funding provided by Providence is being designated for “problem solving costs.” For example, the team may pay for an overnight hotel stay for a senior citizen until they are able to get in touch with an appropriate agency that can fund a shelter placement for them. Or, they might help an unhoused individual acquire an ID so they can register for housing assistance.
The goal is to connect people with services or shelter as soon as they are ready to accept help and not risk losing contact by promising to return when the placement or appointment is ready. Or, in the instance that an individual is not ready to accept help, the goal is to learn where they live and continue to visit them until trust has been established.
“I think what’s special about the Salvation Army honestly is that we’re willing to really get nitty gritty and build a relationship with these guys,” said Fleming. “The capacity just to meet somebody where they’re at in the field is super important, to know where they stay, even if it’s just a little corner of an alley and to have several touch points with them.”
The other unique aspect of this new team is that they are going to target areas that outreach teams currently don’t operate in such as underpasses and parks east of Lincoln Boulevard, in addition to known problem spots Downtown.
Because funding for the program comes directly from Providence Saint John’s and not through a government program, Fleming is able to access it quickly and run the program independently.
The suggestion to reach out to Providence for start-up funding came from City Councilmember Phil Brock who serves on the advisory board for the Santa Monica Salvation Army.
“Whether Salvation Army takes that additional team and puts them Downtown or east of Lincoln we need more [outreach] teams, and the way to do it is not through municipal funding right now because we don’t have that extra money,” said Brock. “To me the way to do it is to have our business people get together and offer help.”
Following Brock’s advice, Fleming spoke with the CEO of Providence Saint John’s Michael Ricks who agreed to provide $250,000 to run the outreach team for a year. This allows Fleming to rapidly roll out the program and also gives him time to apply for long-term grant funding. It’s Fleming’s goal to have the team hit the streets in the next month.