With a soft voice and a disarming demeanor, Laura Lemoine politely approaches a visitor on the Third Street Promenade like a seasoned salesperson offering assistance to a customer at a luxury boutique. But instead of inquiring about the man's pocket square pattern preferences or favorite suit style, she's more focused on whether or not he has eaten and if he has family or friends he can contact so he doesn't spend another night on the streets.
Lemoine is the case manager on the C3 Team, the City of Santa Monica's latest weapon in the fight to end homelessness. C3 stands for City + County + Community and is a model that was started in Downtown Los Angeles' Skid Row and later expanded to Venice.
She and her colleagues Matt McAdams, who has a background in mental health, and Zach Coil, a licensed social worker, walk the streets of Downtown Santa Monica nearly every day with the sole goal of making contact with as many homeless people as possible, assess their situations and ultimately guide them towards permanent housing.
Sometimes the team members offer directions to the downtown Access Center on Olympic Boulevard, where homeless individuals can get a meal, take a shower, use the restroom and begin the process of reuniting with their families or enter into drug or alcohol treatment centers. Other times all they can do is provide a smile, a granola bar and words of encouragement. It all depends on how receptive the person is. Some interact pleasantly, others curse and growl. But the end game is the same, helping as many people as the team members can, in any way possible.
"Sometimes it's … digging someone out of a hole, other times it's just giving them a boost," Coil said.
C3 Team members (from left to right) Zach Coil, Matt McAdams and Laura Lemoine spend time with a man seated on Santa Monica Boulevard at Second Street who said he feel asleep on a bus headed to Santa Monica from Korea Town and did not have enough money to make it back there.
For instance, Santa Monica team members recently made contact with a mentally-ill man in Palisades Park who seemed to be in a daze and had no recollection of how he traveled to Santa Monica or where he traveled from. Through some investigate work, Coil and his team were able to determine that he had walked away from a group home in Bakersfield, Calif. Team members made contact with the group home and ended up driving the man back. One small step, but a step towards the ultimate goal of ensuring everyone has a place to call home.
"That really stokes the fire when you can do something immediate that makes a difference, but the real work is in the long term," Coil said as he and his team members continued traveling north on the promenade during a busy summer afternoon, constantly scanning benches and shaded doorways for people with worn luggage and dressed in multiple layers, which can often be signs that someone is homeless.
"It's not often when things line up so perfectly," McAdams added. "Getting people connected to services has to happen in a reasonable time frame or otherwise you may lose them. There are a lot of barriers to getting people housed."
Coil, who, along with his C3 Team members, works for The People Concern, one of Los Angeles County's largest social services agencies. The city contracted with the County Department of Mental Health Services, which administers the county's other C3 teams. The county is subcontracting with The People Concern, which was formed in 2016 following the merger of Santa Monica-based OPCC and Lamp Community.
The city has provided $400,000 for the first year of the team's operation, funding made available via one-time funds from the council to advance the city's strategic goal of addressing homelessness, said Brian Hardgrave, a senior administrative analyst with the city's Human Services Division who oversees the C3 Team and other homeless programs.
The C3 Team, which will soon consist of five members, must meet specific measurables as part of the contract, including making contact with 240 homeless individuals in a year. Hardgrave said they have far exceeded that target in the first three months. The team must also provide services or referrals to 120 people, place 72 of them into interim housing, and another 48 into permanent housing.
Roughly half of the people the team interacts with are people who call Santa Monica's streets home for weeks, months or maybe even years, while the other half are those who stay for only a few days and then move on. While all are unique, most have similar stories. Some are dealing with drug and alcohol addiction. Others may have had a significant injury that caused them to lose their jobs and their savings. Most of them have no support network to help them through the trying times. And most have experienced some kind of trauma in their lives.
"You or I, when we are going through something, have people we can rely on," Coil said. "But it is very hard to get through that when you have no one."
The team has interacted with people who are suffering from a severe illness but are not in the position to seek treatment. Dealing with a cancer diagnosis becomes secondary when you are constantly stressing over where you are going to sleep at night or how you are going to get enough money to eat.
For decades, the city has been at the forefront in the fight to end homelessness, incorporating different models to develop real solutions, not just practices that only manage the problem. Whether it was the police department's innovative Homeless Liaison Program or incorporating the housing-first model with supportive services on site, the city has not been afraid to try new things and then double-down on those that show results.
But despite these initiatives, the homeless crisis has only gotten worse in recent years because of several factors, including rising rents, stagnant wages and decreased development of affordable housing.
Over the last five years, homelessness has increased by 40 percent in Los Angeles County. While there was a 3 percent drop in 2018 to roughly 53,000 homeless individuals countywide, the number of people living on the streets in Santa Monica increased by 26 percent for a total of 921, according to the city's most recent homeless count results.
While some Santa Monica residents lose their housing and become homeless, homeless individuals also migrate to the city for a variety of reasons: it is safer than other parts of Los Angeles, tourist spots allow for panhandling, and a beach community means access to public restrooms and showers, city officials said. The impact of homelessness is significant and the city's response is seen as smart, cutting edge, and resource prudent.
Santa Monica's strategic approach to assisting people who are homeless has long focused on reaching the most vulnerable first: those suffering from chronic homelessness, acute medical needs, or disabilities. The city continues to do that outreach, but is expanding that work with the C3 Team. There is also Project Homecoming, which reunites homeless individuals with family and friends who are willing and able to offer permanent housing and ongoing support.
The city also collaborates with the county's Public Defender's Office and the Los Angeles Superior Court to run the Homeless Community Court. The court allows homeless individuals with non-violent offenses to enroll in the program, which requires them to meet regularly with a case manager and a local service provider that connects them to supportive services like job training, rehab, or mental health care, and permanent housing. Upon successful completion of the program, their charges are dismissed by the court.
Just as the C3 Team is a collaborative effort, so is the city's action plan to end homelessness. By uniting with other partners in the fight, the city can better leverage resources and identify programs that work. The next step is to get more residents and businesses involved, so everyone takes ownership of the issue and can make a lasting impact.
As part of that effort, the city recently launched the "We Are Santa Monica" campaign (learn more at www.weare.santamonica.gov) which provides residents and business owners with resources and ways to volunteer and take action, not just on the issue of homelessness but in all aspects of civic life.
By educating yourself about the issues, and getting involved, there is hope that compassion and understanding overtake some of the vitriol that breeds divisiveness and spreads negative stereotypes, such as the belief that all homeless choose to live on the streets and are simply being "lazy." The truth is most people who are without housing did not choose to be, but are reacting to some negative circumstance. It could be they were sexual abused at home or cast out of their family for being transgender. Some could be suffering from PTSD or are addicted to pain killers following a significant surgery.
Lemoine has experienced some of the harsh negativity during her already emotionally challenging work with the C3 Team. One passerby saw her interacting with a homeless person in downtown and said to her, "You don't feed the rats!" Comments like that can take their toll on the team members, but they support one another and do their best to decompress after each shift and leave their work at the office.
"We do a lot of self-care," she said.
The key, Coil said, is to truly believe in the work you are doing, to have faith in the mission and constantly remind yourself why you chose this work to begin with.
"And then sometimes it's just Netflix and chill," he said. "Or for me just Netflix." Coil has kids at home, so there's never really anytime to chill.
Every day there seems to be a new challenge. And until policy changes at the national, state and local level to provide more housing, education and job training, and better health care, there will always be someone new for the team members to meet and hopefully help.