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Homeless Agency Steps Up with Housing

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

March 15 -- What now is a sliver of pavement nestled between brick buildings on Fifth Street Downtown moved a step closer Wednesday to becoming the ground floor of a new home for mentally ill and homeless individuals.

Nearly 200 community members, City and non-profit officials turned out for the ceremonial groundbreaking of the $16 million, 46-unit project near Colorado Avenue -- the second local facility for the 23-year-old Santa Monica-based non-profit, Step-Up-on-Second Street.

Heralded as a “doorway” through which scores can one-day reclaim their broken lives, the five-story, 23,000-square-foot glass and steel building may also serve as a model for similar projects that could eventually dot the city to help a burgeoning and struggling population shunned in some nearby communities.

"That doorway will be the entrance for those that will have homes here, and it will also be their exit from homelessness," Step-Up CEO Todd Lipka told the clapping crowd.

Over his shoulder, a poster-board image of the futuristic, multi-colored building stood as a backdrop between an auto repair shop and a Salvation Army home for seniors already at the site.

City housing officials said they expected the artists rendering will be replaced by real walls, beams and interiors by 2009.

But that may only be the beginning.

"We can do more than one," said Bob Moncrief, the City's housing division manager. "We have the money, and we have the confidence to do more."

Pitching in $7.1 million, the City helped Step-Up fund the project, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from the Annenberg and Hope foundations.

(left) Tod Lipka, CEO of Step Up on Second, Marleen Rognlien with husband Bruce Rognlien, Chairman of Step Up on Fifth Capital Campaign

After an exhaustive search for the right property, Step-Up finally settled on the vacant lot one block west of another homeless shelter on Colorado Avenue and a block east of what could be a future light rail terminus, Lipka said.

It is also just three blocks from the non-profit's original 34-unit, permanent housing building, which opened its doors in 1984. Today the organization helps 1,200 individuals and serves an estimated 40,000 hot meals a year.

Continued support from City Council members, such as Mayor Richard Bloom, will be vital if the non-profit is to achieve its goal of 100 new units citywide, many agreed.

"We are just so fortunate," said Bloom. "This is not just about those future 46 individuals. Think about all the families and friends of these individuals.

"This is a return to what we need to be -- a family and community," Bloom said.

Mayor Richard Bloom

The groundbreaking comes less than three years after Santa Monica embarked on a “Housing First” approach to homelessness. Used by an increasing number of cities nationwide, the approach mainly uses Federal funds to house those who have been on the streets the longest and are the largest draw on police, fire and hospital services.

The new facility will include some 34 units set aside for those who suffer from mental illness and are homeless, said Lipka.

"Mental health services providers have to address housing," Lipka said. "If you don't have a place for them to live, then you don't have a plan."

A recent study by the Washington-based Urban Institute estimates that there are some 2,800 homeless people in Santa Monica, the majority of them suffering from mental illness or substance abuse, or both.

Of 1,900 tracked by local non-profits, 38 percent are mentally ill, much higher than the average in other cities nationwide, according to experts.

The new Step-Up-on-Fifth facility will hopefully help those on the streets find a way back to a normal life, Lipka said.

"The psychosomatic model is effective along with supportive housing,” he said.

Step Up on Second Board Member Ken Anderson, Step Up on Second Member Jacob Ramsey and Step Up on Second CEO Tod Lipka

On hand to testify to such a model was Ken-Ali, a two-year participant in the Step-Up program, who sang a song he wrote, as the crowd clapped to the rhythm.

Jacob Ramsey, now a member of Step-Up's board of directors, is also a survivor who has turned his life around, despite struggles with bipolar disorder.

"Ten years ago I was homeless, helpless with no hope," said Ramsey, who emceed the event. "Today I have a house, I have hope and Step-Up helped me achieve that."

Getting other communities on board with such programs continues to be a daunting challenge, but in Santa Monica Wednesday, a small step forward was taken, Ramsey said.

"That stigma is there against the mentally ill," he said. "There is NIMBYism -- or people who say not-in-my-backyard -- but today we have a building going up in Downtown Santa Monica four blocks off the beach… how about that."


"That doorway will be the entrance for those that will have homes here, and it will also be their exit from homelessness."
Todd Lipka


"We have the money, and we have the confidence to do more."
Bob Moncrief


"This is a return to what we need to be -- a family and community."
Richard Bloom


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