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  • Writer's pictureLizeth Antonio

Building relationships and safe spaces for the Unhoused community

Updated: 2 days ago

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While there are several strategies in action to address the homeless/houseless crisis, what can be done to amplify awareness and break stereotypes and stigmas around these communities?


Perhaps we can start by offering a smile and saying hello instead of ignoring our unhoused neighbors. 


One notable Wellbeing Microgrant Leader spearheading advocacy towards the needs of unhoused individuals is Rebecca Cannara. In 2019 through 2020 she led a Community Dialogue series with Housed and Unhoused residents of Santa Monica which she found was critical towards bridging understanding of the inequities faced by the unhoused community


To continue supporting this work, she led her first project with the Wellbeing Microgrant Program in 2020- during the first year of the Covid-19 Pandemic; she took on the task of providing portable solar chargers to the unhoused community in the Santa Monica Area. Through her work on the ground, Rebecca saw an increased sense of hope and security as her recipients spoke about how necessary it was to now own a portable solar charger as many places were now closed to the public due to the Covid-19 lockdown.




Rebecca re-applied to the 9th round of the Wellbeing Microgrant Program with the initial intention to revive the Community Dialogue series she led in 2019-2020, this time in partnership with the Santa Monica Salvation Army. Every Thursday, the Salvation Army distributes a variety of resources for up to 150 unhoused individuals including: food, clothing and medical support. Rebecca shared that people begin to line up as early as 5pm for a function that begins at 8pm- seeing this led to planning the Community Dialogue series before the food distribution to invite the people who arrived early so that they could come inside, rest and partake in community conversation until the food distribution opened up.


During the first session she quickly identified that holding a safe environment for solely unhoused individuals was an immediate necessity and as a result shifted the focus of her program. 


“Some people just needed a quiet place to rest while the others needed to talk a lot about their experiences. One person just sat and wept. He was broken-hearted after returning from prison after a very long time only to find the area he knew to be completely changed (gentrified).”


She found that in each session it was important to hold space without judgment to “check-in” with each member- creating peer support was crucial to fostering understanding and trust. As the setting became more comfortable, members began to talk about their hardships facing Police harassment and the encampment laws in Santa Monica. Key items discussed included:

  • Asking someone how they are is very complicated. You need to be willing to truly listen with empathy and hear how they are, because people in the streets are not ok and are experiencing a lot of daily traumas.

  • At first, sharing personal information was felt to be very risky, as people may use it against you outside of these sessions. But as people shared, they found a lot of common ground across experiences, such as a desire for safety and wellbeing.

  • Interactions with the police were brought up practically each time. People shared feeling harassed by a small number of Santa Monica Police personnel who are known to be difficult. 

  • They expressed strong feelings of isolation with a lot of stigma around how you look and how people look at you. They shared how each day they encounter people who say horrible things to them.

  • Many found it challenging to navigate the housing system and expressed confusion and frustration with how they are treated by service providers and housing navigators.


During one of the sessions Rebecca invited a former unhoused community member that had participated in the Community Dialogue series in 2019. His participation was noticeably impactful towards inspiring hope for the community group as he shared about his lived experience as an unhoused person leading up to his journey of now being housed. 


With the help of the $500 microgrant, Rebecca noticed that providing $15 gift cards during the end of each session positively impacted the members as it was the only form of money they now had. By the end of the series, Rebecca witnessed members of the group become housed. 


“In real time, we watched someone get sober living housing, while another person who was considering rehab got to witness the good news. We witnessed people sharing information about jobs and resources nearby. And each time we were able to help people see that they weren’t truly alone.”


By December 2023, Rebecca’s pilot series led to the Salvation Army adopting it to continue the peer support group and now fully sponsors the gift cards for their participants.


“My biggest takeaway is that we need to offer much more space for people to be invited inside, to share in community, to be given a place to rest, to feel like they are welcome and that we, their neighbors, want to hear about who they are and what they need. I would love to see this incorporated more broadly with city support, so that housed and unhoused neighbors are encouraged to come together.”


How would you impact the Houseless community with $500?



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