MAKING A DIFFERENCE
If you ask a young, homeless person where they’re going and they reply to My Friend’s Place, they are probably in good hands.
My Friend’s Place is a nonprofit that assists and inspires homeless youth ages 12-25 to build self-sufficient lives.
Originally called the Lighthouse, My Friend’s Place was co-founded in 1988 by Steve LePore and Craig Scholz in order to provide services that included offering a few hours of respite from the street, food, and compassionate, caring adult guidance.
The name was changed to My Friend’s Place so it wouldn’t “out” a person about their housing status. It’s considered youth-centric.
Today, Heather Carmichael, 53, the executive director of My Friend’s Place since 2010, said the core of the organization hasn’t changed, but due to COVID-19, but it has had to make some service adjustments at its Hollywood headquarters.
“In the beginning, as everything shut down we took everything outside,” Carmichael said. “We realized we could reduce the risk of transmission if we took this to open air. We took it out to the front of the organization.
“There were people outside who were out of our age range, but we took care of them anyway,” Carmichael added. “We don’t turn people away. We provide hygiene, masks, food, clothing. We want to provide protection from COVID-19.”
Before COVID-19, on any given day, My Friend’s Place helped about 200 people inside the facility. The number has dropped to about 150 for sidewalk services, said Carmichael, a Los Angeles native who has been with the organization for 20 years.
To accommodate those in need, the organization transformed its parking lot in order to provide employment services, housing work, education counselors, access to phones and computers, and making sure young people felt connected. Some of My Friend’s Place programs include health & well-being, transformative education, intake and crisis care and safe haven.
“The great work continues,” Carmichael said. “There are about 4,673 homeless youth on the streets on any given night. About 2,088 are sheltered, but 2,500 are sleeping on the streets.”
The homeless population is on the rise in Los Angeles. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, there are currently 66,000 homeless people in L.A. County. That’s a 12% increase from the 2019 count, while the city of Los Angeles’ homeless population jumped by 14.2%.
Although the homeless services authority put more people in housing in the past year, the number of people falling into homelessness over the same period continued to exceed the rate at which people were being housed.
Last week, a judge signed off on a deal for the city and county of Los Angeles to provide housing for the homeless. The agreement comes after U.S. District Judge David Carter in May ordered the city and county to “humanely” relocate into a shelter homeless people living near freeway overpasses, underpasses, and ramps, or provide “an alternative housing option.”
Over the next year and a half, reportedly, the city will provide beds for almost 7,000 people who live near freeways, as well as those over 64 or those vulnerable to COVID-19. The county is expected to invest more than $300 million over five years to fund essential services for people occupying the beds.
The city of Los Angeles is proposing to spend $430 million on homelessness in the 2020-21 fiscal year, and, with state and federal grants the total, will be more than $679 million.
Across the state, the U.S. Census shows about 6.5% of Californians identify as Black or African American, but they account for nearly 40% of the state’s homeless, according to a Department of Housing and Urban Development report to Congress. Nationally, Black people account for 13.4% of the population but are 39.8% of the homeless population.
Carmichael said the need is “greater than ever” and that “My Friend’s Place is doing its part to provide resources to persons in need.”
“We believe in these young people and treat them as a whole person,” she said. “We are obligated to help. If we can do something to help and support young people, we should do it. When we are treated as human, we find our potential in that and our potential for partnership in that.”
Carmichael said My Friend’s Place is a place for young people to feel safe and to belong and to reimagine how adults and providers community and systems might be able to help them achieve their goals and dreams and be the adults they aspire to be.
“We change as the young people need us to,” said Carmichael, who added since COVID-19, the organization sees between three to five new young people daily. “We are not asking young people to jump through hoops or fill out paperwork. They can ‘drop-in’ when they want to get their needs met. We provide what they need right now to survive. They need support and resources to survive.”
It’s no surprise that food is an essential resource.
“Sometimes young people come to us because they have literally not eaten in days,” said Carmichael. “Meeting hunger needs is essential. We also have things like being able to take a shower, clean clothes, and the ability to just sit and have a moment of grounding. It’s important to be surrounded by people who care for you instead of always looking over your shoulder.”
Through its transformative education program, Carmichael said My Friend’s Place, which does not have a physical housing facility, offers everything from arts education, to employment, employment training, access to supplies, support to go back to school, and skills building.
Some young people experience an “immediate crisis” when they’ve unexpectedly been tossed into homelessness.
“Sometimes becoming homeless happens suddenly,” said Carmichael, who considers it an honor to work with young people. “Helping a young person consider how to stay in housing or enter the systems available to help them get to housing is what we do. We don’t want them to fail.
“Failure has tragic consequences for young people. A consequence of life on the streets can be death. We don’t want these kids to become adults who are pushed away.”
Carmichael said when young people talk about their pathway to homelessness, it’s clear several things went awry in their care.
“Sometimes it’s family,” she said. “This person has been abused or neglected. It has had such an impact on that person’s ability to sit in a chair and learn. Schools don’t recognize that. They don’t understand that it’s a kid’s response to their abuse. It’s thought that they are a bad kid.
“Then the kids think schools don’t like them and grown people don’t like them. At some point, we have to address the larger issues in order to be the kind of community that we want to be.”
Carmichael measures the success of My Friend’s Place by the trust young people have for adults.
“It’s a tiny win,” she said. “For a young person, success may be they secured their birth certificate, which means they can be in line for housing. When someone goes back to school, gets a job, or gets over the probation period — those are also successes.”
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to email@example.com.
By Darlene Donloe