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New Home For the Homeless:

Thanks to radio man Harry Shearer and his KCRW-based program, “Le Show,” Santa Monica is known to listeners across the country as “The Home of the Homeless” – a characterization that annoys real estate agents, because they claim it brings down property values every time Shearer says it.  But it can also irk the hard-working social service providers in Santa Monica, who, every time they go to City leaders with plans for a new program, a remodel, or an expansion, must hear the phrase thrown back at them by a few Council members, some neighborhood groups and a handful of local residents who feel that the very existence of such programs is what lures homeless people to Santa Monica in the first place.

This concept can (and will, believe me) continue to be debated amongst Santa Monica residents, housed and un-housed – its circular arguments dizzying us on each go round.  But, at least for now, the discussion is over in regards to OPCC’s latest expansion, at 1751 Cloverfield Ave., which broke ground on Wednesday, May 25.

“It’s been a long time coming,” states OPCC Executive Director John Maceri, of the ceremonial ground breaking that officially begins the total renovation of the former industrial office building into a space that will house two separate transitional housing programs as well as day programs and a client-run small business.

After being informed by the City a few years back that it would have to move its Access Center and Daybreak Shelter programs from their current Sixth Street locations in order to make room for the new Big Blue Bus yards, OPCC (formerly known as Ocean Park Community Center, but now going by its acronym only), began to look for an appropriate site for a new home.

Months of searching the tight Santa Monica real estate market turned to years, as one potential site after another fell through.  Once the Cloverfield site was located and secured, Maceri and company weathered a small, but well-organized storm of residents and neighborhood groups – in particular the Pico Neighborhood Association – as they took their opposition to the new shelter site to the City Council.

However, OPCC had its supporters, too, including dozens of residents, other social service providers, and most City leaders.

After informational meetings, negotiations, and a few compromises, a deal was struck in which the City purchased the site, and then leased it back to OPCC for 55 years.  OPCC’s Access Center, a drop-in facility where homeless and low-income individuals and families can receive emergency services such as food, clothing and showers, will stay on the Big Blue Bus property – likely moving to the corner of 5th Street and Olympic Boulevard by mid-2006.  This satisfied neighborhood groups who feared that a drop-in facility would attract homeless folks to their part of town, and it relieved OPCC staff, who felt that a downtown location is more appropriate for the Access Center. 

The City also agreed to pitch in with some of the cost of renovation.  As for the rest of the funding, “Los Angeles County and the State [of California] are providing additional rehab support and operating costs,” says Maceri, “and the Federal government is providing some money for programming.”  The balance of the costs, Maceri explains, are being funded by individual private donors and family foundations. 

OPCC plans to open the Cloverfield site in spring of 2006.  Programming will include Daybreak Shelter, a six-month transitional housing program for homeless mentally-ill women, which will expand from 15 to 30 beds in the move; and Women in New Directions (WIND), a follow-up program for graduates of Daybreak.  WIND offers independent living skills classes recreation and other activities during the day.  As part of the WIND program, Daybreak graduates can chose to participate in Daybreak Designs, a client-run arts and crafts business in which most of the profits go to the individual artists, with a small percentage going back into business expenses.  Daybreak and WIND will be located on the second floor of the building.

The first floor will house Safe Haven, a co-ed transitional housing shelter that will offer 25 beds to men and women who are mentally-ill with co-existing disorders – meaning they may also have substance abuse histories, have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS or other physical problems, are escaping a battering partner, or any combination thereof.  Traditionally, the most difficult population to find shelter for due to their multiple diagnoses, people who fit this category can now be referred by their service providers to Safe Haven.  (All potential Daybreak and Safe Haven residents must be referred from another program or shelter.)

One of OPCC’s newer programs, Safe Haven has been running out of the Access Center after hours– using cots as beds, and shuttling clients out the door in the morning.  With the acquisition of the new building, that will change.  Like Daybreak, Safe Haven will offer day programming, and services such as onsite nurses, 12-step meetings, and support groups. 

“We have strong partnerships with Venice Family Clinic, the L.A. County Department of Mental Health, and most service providers in Santa Monica,” Maceri says.  Some supportive programming will occur offsite at partner agencies, while other services will come to the clientele, helping them to do things like fill out paperwork, get check-ups and generally “take care of business,” while also learning how survive and thrive in their own housing when the time comes.

Until that time comes for each resident of Daybreak, Safe Haven, and OPCC’s other shelter programs, OPCC will happily remain the temporary, transitional, home of the homeless.

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