Meeting youth experiencing homelessness where they are

November 14, 2023

Visitors to the building on Sunset Avenue in Venice are greeted by an eye-catching wall of color, a welcoming mural depicting pleasant images of nature. Inside the place is bustling, with people in their teens and early 20s chatting, grabbing a hot meal, playing instruments, or talking to staff members about a problem they have with housing or a legal issue. Other young people are keeping to themselves, engrossed in a book or art project on the back patio.

This is the access center for Safe Place for Youth (SPY), a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering and providing resources for transition-age youth ages 12-25 who experience homelessness or are at risk for homelessness.

There’s David, 24, who has been experiencing homelessness on and off since he was 18. His mother and grandparents are dead, his father was deported to Mexico, and his brother is in prison. For the past eight months, he has been sleeping on the beach. His girlfriend is there with him. They’re expecting a child next year. David is searching for work so he can support his growing family.

There’s Breonna, 23, with her 5-month old son. They live in supportive housing nearby. Before that, Breonna lived in a shelter in Hollywood for a year, and before that she lived on the street. Breonna has been on her own since her grandmother kicked her out when she was 17. She wants to get a car and a house for her and her son.

And there’s Amos, who has been on his own since the age of 17 when he joined the military. He’s hesitant to share many details about his past and how he found himself sleeping outside a local museum (“I don’t want to pick at old scars”), but is willing to share that he left the military with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Getting the care he needs

Until earlier this year, Amos, now 21, wasn’t sure where to go for help with his issues, which also included having trouble breathing. Then someone told him about SPY, not far from where he had been sleeping. There he found a community of other young people living in similar situations, along with free food, clothing, internet access, recording equipment to help him work on his album, and health care provided by Venice Family Clinic.

The Clinic’s Homeless Services team helped Amos get a chest X-ray (the result was normal, and his symptoms cleared up on their own), STI testing, tuberculosis testing for housing, and dental care at a Venice Family Clinic site. They helped him with the Medi-Cal application process as well as a county housing application, verifying his PTSD diagnosis so he could get two years of permanent supportive housing, which just came through last month.

“The people from Venice Family Clinic genuinely care. They have pure intentions, and they enjoy helping us. You can feel it,” Amos said. “That’s what makes them different.”

A powerful partnership

Venice Family Clinic brings health care to young people like Amos, David and Breonna every week at SPY. The Clinic team offers on-site medical and psychiatric care, as well as substance use counseling. Some of the common health issues SPY’s clients seek help for include sexual health, family planning, prenatal care, skin problems, dental care, substance use and mental health.

“Safe Place for Youth’s partnership with Venice Family Clinic has been critical in reducing barriers to meet the medical and mental health needs of our members,” said SPY CEO Erika Hartman. “When youth have to travel to multiple locations, carrying all of their belongings with them, they are less likely to access services. But thanks to our invaluable partnership with Venice Family Clinic, youth can access all of their most essential needs in one place. By having co-located medical services, we are able to be a bridge for youth to holistically tend to their health and facilitate access in an environment where they feel safe.”

In general, many youth who experience homelessness have experienced trauma that may have led to their leaving home or being kicked out of their home. They often identify as LGBTQ+ and/or are survivors of domestic violence, abuse or neglect. Youth experiencing homelessness have higher rates of mood disorders, suicide attempts and post-traumatic stress than youth who have stable homes. A disproportionate number are former foster youth who have aged out of the system and find themselves without any support.

“The youth we care for at SPY have the potential to better understand how their trauma affects them and get on a path to healing faster than people who are older,” said Physician Assistant Carrie Kowalski. “There’s always hope there. Some of my patients who I’ve met at SPY are now in school or working.”

Lowering barriers

Our partnership with SPY began in 2014 when Dr. Karen Lamp, who was the Clinic’s medical director at the time, developed the health care program located on site at SPY’s drop-in center. SPY’s own needs assessment showed that medical care was at the top of their clients’ lists, so this was a welcome relationship. Since its opening, Kowalski has been the lead clinician at Bill’s Clinic at SPY, named for the late city Councilmember Bill Rosendahl.

Kowalski said that her young patients often feel more comfortable getting care at SPY rather than at our clinic on nearby Rose Avenue, a sentiment echoed by Amos and other SPY patients.

“We can overcome the real and perceived barriers of traditional health care by meeting people where they already feel comfortable, which in this case is at SPY,” Kowalski said. “Over time we build relationships and trust, and once they get to know us, they will often come by just to say hello, even if they don’t need care from us that day.”

Amos said that he chooses to get his care only from Kowalski because she doesn’t judge him or make him do things that he doesn’t want to do.

“Ms. Carrie is a beautiful soul,” he said. “She has been super helpful. She helped me even before I got Medi-Cal and then helped me get Medi-Cal. And she helped me get high-quality housing, so I don’t have to sleep outside or go to shelters anymore. I have a home base now.”