Some hold up signs at freeway exits, others live nomadic lives out of their shopping carts but not much else is known about the area’s homeless community. Natural Ivy Foundation located on Hobart at Venice Blvd, focuses on learning more about the people who live on the streets of Council District 10 and strives to provide comprehensive solutions to their complex problems.
The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority counted approximately 44,359 homeless people in its latest survey, with 25,686 living within city limits. The countywide total was 12 percent jump from the total two years ago.
“The homeless situation in Los Angeles is an epidemic. Things aren’t getting better,”said Natural Ivy Foundation Director, Pernetha Smith.
A common misconception is that homelessness is associated to drug and alcohol abuse. However, many of the homeless people in CD10 do not fit that profile, according to Smith.
“The face of homelessness has changed. It doesn’t look like what it used to look like. Every day, people have just one situation that can make you homeless,” Smith said.
Take a moment to think about the sweetest neighbors on your street.
Mr. and Mrs. Neighbor decorate their street’s palm trees for the holiday season and read to children at the local library. When they retire, their nominal savings fall rapidly as their medical expenses soar. Mr. Neighbor loses his best friend of 43 years when Mrs. Neighbor caves under the strain of chemotherapy. Neighborhood kids help Mr. Neighbor with some errands and Mrs. Church Friend helps with a few chores but everyday tasks are beginning to overwhelm Mr. Neighbor. His memory is fading rapidly, his social security income is insufficient, and the upkeep of his home becomes impossible.
Cases like this are very common, Smith says. The area is full of displaced seniors who have resided in the area most of their lives. Mental disability, poverty, and lack of medication land them on the streets.
“They end up losing their houses and they don’t even have family anymore,” Smith said. “We have a lot of power [of attorney] events because we have had situations where they die and they don’t have anybody to take care of their bodies.”
A large part of the area’s homeless population is also made up of teens who age out of foster care. When they turn 18, they suddenly drown in the responsibilities of independence, sometimes with children of their own but no plan for basic food and shelter. Many of them fall into prostitution claims Smith. Some of Natural Ivy’s clients are young mothers who are nudged into trafficking by an older boyfriend. One day, they wake up and realize their “boyfriends” and fathers to their children are in reality their pimps.
“We promote family unity but how do we have them have proper, healthy communication when their co-parent is the abuser?” Smith questions. “All we can do is guide them.”
Natural Ivy does more than guide its clients. The Los Angeles branch of the foundation was born when founder Smith ended up living out of her car after moving to Los Angeles with her sister. She recalls joining a group of girls in order to seem less vulnerable as they walked through gang territories to get to a homeless shelter. She emerged from this situation realizing that anyone can end up homeless.
“In that transitional period we saw the need. So many families and children living in cars and the park around the corner,” Smith said. “That really charged us to say, ‘Okay, we can’t leave we have to do something about it.’”
The organization has branches in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Virginia. Smith and her sister started the Los Angeles branch seven years ago near Crenshaw and 54th Street. Their vision wasn’t clear but they began building supports around community centers, partnering with different nonprofits for health fairs, and offering after school programs. Today, the volunteer-run Natural Ivy offers those services along with supportive housing for clients who are between temporary shelter and permanent housing. Other services include childcare for clients who attend school or work, case management, hands-on job training and employment placement, nutrition education, prepared meals, transportation aid, cultural events, and access to healthcare.
The organization works to tackle the many reasons that prevent individuals from sustaining a permanent home. For example, in her afterschool programs, Smith learned that kids aren’t reading at home because they don’t have electricity. They don’t have the energy to do homework because they’re hungry. "Chronic poverty can’t be fixed with a band-aid. These things come up and what are you going to do? You’re either going to deal with them or you can’t get past it,” said Smith.
Smith describes the organization as a hub of community resources, which are maximized to their fullest potential due to the foundation’s private and very limited funding.
Among Natural Ivy’s diverse list of community partners are a residential care facility, childcare nonprofit Pathways, and a community health clinic that tends to Natural Ivy clients quickly. Partners reflect the rich multicultural influences of the community and assist anybody who needs the help, regardless of age or ethnicity.
“This area is interesting to me because it’s a melting pot but it’s not really melting, it’s more like a soup that’s really not done,” the East Coast native joked. “You have a potato here and an onion there, so we consider ourselves the water [that brings it together].”
Smith decided to take a more active role in providing housing so Natural Ivy began offering housing services three years ago. The program has developed into a supportive home model that allows residents to live in communal housing sites for up to 24 months.
Each family is placed in a single unit at one of Natural Ivy’s sites. The site placement depends on the individual’s goals. For example, a resident who is training in the healthcare field, will be placed at a site where a lot of seniors live. This helps the senior who needs aid and helps the trainee who could potentially work with the senior in the future.
Counselors visit residents regularly to keep them on track with their goals.
“Budgeting is very hard. But a lot of times that’s usually why individuals are homeless,” Smith said. “They had the incomes but they just need someone to help them.”
Once residents are ready, Natural Ivy assists them in securing independent homes by negotiating rent rates and partnering with homeowners who will charge lower rent, waive certain fees, or accept questionable credit records due to their partnership with Natural Ivy.
Moving forward, Smith plans to expand because she anticipates the need for housing services will only grow. In the near future, Natural Ivy will pursue corporate funding to open more supportive home sites across the city. Smith is committed to continue building relationships with contributors and people who need Natural Ivy’s help.
“Just try to not give up on the person or the situation,” Smith said.
Established in August of 2008 by writer, artist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.