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Robust Support System and Millions in Housing for Veterans

(Left to Right) LA County Veterans’ Advisory Commissioner and Army Veteran Dennis Tucker, Marine Veteran and Formerly Homeless Advocate Wendell Blassingame, LA County Community Development Commission Executive Director Monique King-Viehland, Soldiers Project Executive Director and Marine Veteran Michael McDowell, Supervisor Kathryn Barger, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, UCLA/VA Veteran Family Wellness Center Executive Director and Marine Veteran Tess Banko, Los Angeles Veterans Collaborative Co-Chair and Vietnam War Veteran Tony Hicks, and LA County Department of Mental Health Director Jonathan Sherin. All photos by Diandra Jay / Board of Supervisors.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Kathryn Barger to create a countywide support network that will enable veterans to help fellow veterans, and allocate $20 million to provide housing for veterans experiencing mental health issues and housing challenges in Los Angeles County.

“It is fitting that we are taking action on the Countywide Veteran Peer Access Network on the day after Memorial Day,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “We can never repay our brave men and women for their service to our country, but the least we can do is make sure they have the support they need to lead lives of dignity and purpose.”

LA County Community Development Commission Executive Director Monique King-Viehland testifies before the Board of Supervisors.

“This action establishes a network which enables our veterans to help fellow veterans access vital resources, including mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and housing,” Supervisor Barger said. “Meaningful peer-to-peer interaction and engagement, paired with supportive services and housing tailored for veterans’ needs, will result in improved outcomes for those who have served.”

The motion calls for creating the Countywide Veteran Peer Access Network by expanding the number of veteran peers employed by the County, as well as nonprofit organizations contracted by the County to serve veterans. It also incorporates $5 million to immediately facilitate access to existing housing stock through the Countywide Veteran Peer Access Network, and an additional $15 million to create new affordable and permanent supportive housing units for veterans experiencing homelessness.

 Los Angeles Veterans Collaborative Co-Chair and Vietnam War Veteran Tony Hicks and UCLA/VA Veteran Family Wellness Center Executive Director and Marine Veteran Tess Banko testify before the Board of Supervisors.

Tess Banko, a Marine Corps veteran whose husband tragically committed suicide while on active duty, testified, “This motion will not only serve to tighten the fabric of community in ways that are vital for veterans like me and their families, aiding in prevention and overall health, but it will also create a portal for direct access to coordinated services that can help those in need quickly and easily access assistance when it is most needed.”

“(The motion) not only touches my heart, but it touches every homeless veteran in Los Angeles County,” said Wendell Blassingame, a former Marine Corps veteran who used to be homeless but is now residing in a supportive housing unit provided by the County.

Last year’s Homeless Count found almost 5,000 homeless veterans countywide on any given night.

Foster Care Goes High Tech

Two hundred tech professionals, child welfare leaders, government officials and foster youth came together at Los Angeles’ “Silicon Beach” to explore technology as a solution for some of the toughest issues facing LA County’s foster care system.

“With your ideas and your fresh perspectives, we can continue to refine the role of technology in helping to transform the lives of some of our most vulnerable young people,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas at this year’s hackathon at Fullscreen in Playa Vista.

#HackFosterCare +1 comes a year after a two-day event that brought together tech groups and resulted in nine projects targeting the County’s most vexing child welfare issues. This includes recruiting more foster parents, ensuring school stability for students in foster care, and managing the enormous task of administering visits for foster children and their biological families.

“The interaction between the local tech sector and the LA County foster care community has generated significant strategies for addressing foster care issues,” said Bobby Cagle, director of the County’s Department of Children and Familiy Services, the biggest foster care system in the nation. “We are extremely grateful to the LA County Board of Supervisors, the Pritzker Foster Care Initiative and Fullscreen for continuing to move the dialogue forward building on last year’s successes.”

Highlighted projects included:

  • FosterLAKids.org: Using Technology to Recruit and Develop Resource Families
  • Time2Connect: A Technological Solution for Scheduling & Managing Visitation
  • Harnessing Digital Media to Improve Foster Parent Recruitment & Retention
  • Disrupting Tech: Diversifying the Hiring Pool
  • FosterCode: Building Tech Skills for Foster Youth
  • Using Open Data to Improve Foster Care
  • Fast & Furious 9: Driving Toward Youth Outcomes Using Machine Learning Algorithms
  • Mentor2Mentor: A Youth Entrepreneurship Initiative by ScaleLA to Address Youth Homelessness
  • HopSkipDrive: Ride Sharing to Promote School Stability for Foster Youth

This latest event comes after a series of similarly themed foster care Hackathons at the White House, in New York City, Silicon Valley and the HackFosterCareLA kickoff event last year.

Obama Foundation Lauds Local Community Leader

After sorting through about 20,000 applications from around the world, the Obama Foundation awarded one of its first fellowships to the founder of a local nonprofit that mentors thousands of incarcerated, foster, and at-risk youth, helping them change their lives for the better.

“I am honored to be part of the inaugural Obama Foundation Fellows class and join this diverse group of passionate civic innovators,” New Earth founder Harry Grammer said. “Through the Obama Foundation Fellowship, I look forward to continuing to help more youth realize their dreams and become unstoppable.”

Grammer knows all too well the struggles that his students face. At age 16, he was arrested and sentenced to five years of probation, but he managed to turn his life around and began operating New Earth out of a coffee shop in 2004.

Now, New Earth offers free mentor-based education, counseling, job training and other services to about 500 youth per week in probation camps, juvenile halls, group homes and other placements throughout Los Angeles and Orange Counties. The youth are also given an opportunity to explore writing, music, poetry, performance and art in an environment of creativity and introspection, which are critical to fostering new perspectives while incarcerated.

Upon their release, the youth join the New Earth Arts and Leadership Center in Culver City, which offers career training, a fully accredited high school education program, mentorship, case management, nature expeditions, arts programming, and wrap-around services. New Earth also has a campus in Gardena that offers vocational education in the fields of construction, culinary arts and early childhood education, as well as other services.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas presented New Earth founder Harry Grammer with a scroll in 2017.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas honored Grammer at a Board of Supervisors meeting in late 2017, shortly after he was named a CNN Hero and after the California State Legislature recognized New Earth as Nonprofit of the Year.

“With their dedication and commitment, Harry Grammer and New Earth have helped 10,000 young people overcome tremendous obstacles and turn their lives around,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “They are making Los Angeles County safer by investing in youth and promoting second chances.”

New Earth has a 95 percent success rate in preventing its students from returning to the juvenile justice system, thanks to programs that help them reenter their communities with the support and nurturing they need to make a successful transition.

The Obama Foundation Fellowship will help Grammer and New Earth take their work to the next level. It is a two-year non-residential program that brings together the next generation of civil leaders creating transformational change on many of the world’s most pressing problems. The Fellowship offers hands-on training, leadership development, and a powerful network for participants to amplify the impact of their work and inspire a wave of civic innovation.

Out of the inaugural class of 20 Obama Foundation Fellows, Grammer is the only one chosen from Southern California, and one of only 10 working in the United States.

“The 2018 Obama Foundation Fellows come from diverse backgrounds but share a common desire to make positive change and create the world as it should be,” said Obama Foundation CEO David Simas. “By bringing these individuals together to work with the Obama Foundation, we hope to help amplify the work of our Fellows so it has a widespread impact. On behalf of President and Mrs. Obama and the Obama Foundation family, I congratulate our new Fellows and look forward to working with them.”

Creating a New Generation of Metro Riders and Workers

Rendering of proposed development for the Vermont Manchester site (Killefer Flammang Architects).

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board of Directors approved initiatives that would create a new generation of public transit workers and riders, and help homeless individuals staying in buses, trains and stations secure housing and services.

“It is important to ensure that our youth are deriving all of the benefits of Metro’s growing public transit system, whether as passengers or as future members of its workforce,” said Board Member and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who authored the initiatives.

The Board gave Metro the green light to partner with the County on developing a college-preparatory boarding academy as part of the County-driven project at the intersection of Vermont Avenue and Manchester Boulevard in South LA. Other components of the project include 180 units of affordable housing, 50,000 square feet of retail, and various transit amenities.

In his report to the Board, Metro CEO Phil Washington said the school would “specialize in inspiring and training youth to pursue careers in the transportation and infrastructure sectors,” particularly youth in the County’s safety net and others who have been educationally underserved. Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said, “We want to put these students on a path to career fulfillment by building a school with state-of-the-art technology, support services and unparalleled connections with the transportation industry.”

Students boarding Metro at Cal State LA Station

The Board also approved making the Universal College Student Transit Pass (U-Pass) program permanent and available to undergrads currently enrolled in credit or noncredit courses.  Since Metro launched U-Pass as a pilot 21 months ago, based on a motion by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, the program has seen a 50 percent increase in students signing up for transit passes and $4 million in additional revenue.

“With the U-Pass program, students have access to safe, efficient and affordable transportation, and Metro has a great opportunity to grow ridership,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said.

Metro works with universities and community colleges to encourage sign-ups through the academic registration process. Among those participating in the U-Pass program are Cal Tech, CSULA, CSUN, Compton College, El Camino College, LA City College, LA Trade Tech College, LMU, Mission College, Pasadena City College, Pierce College, Rio Hondo College, and USC (graduate students). UCLA is poised to join the list in July 2018.

A member of Metro’s homeless outreach team offers help to a man near a bus stop.

Another action taken by the Board was to quadruple the number of outreach teams helping homeless individuals aboard Metro’s buses and trains, and in and around its transit stations. It approved $4 million to fund those teams over the next fiscal year.

Under a pilot program launched by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, two outreach teams started operating on the Red Line in May 2017. In their first 10 months of operation, they engaged 1,539 individuals and linked 208 of them to interim housing resources. They also linked 237 individuals to permanent housing resources, and helped 19 to become permanently housed.

Seeing their success, the Board voted to increase the number of outreach teams from two to eight, operating seven days a week on Metro’s rail and bus system, as well as at Union Station. Each outreach team is composed of a nurse, a substance abuse counselor, a mental health clinician, an outreach worker, and a formerly homeless individual.

Metro CEO Phil Washingon and Supervisor and Metro Board member Mark Ridley-Thomas flank members of Metro’s homeless outreach teams.

$453 Million Vermont Corridor Transformation Moves Forward

Rendering by Gensler of 468,000-sq. ft. office tower that will be developed by the Trammell Crow Company to serve as the Vermont Corridor Administration Building.

The Board of Supervisors approved the $453-million Vermont Corridor Project that includes building new headquarters for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health; up to 4,100 sq. ft. of retail space topped with market-rate apartments; and up to 72 units of affordable housing for seniors, plus a community recreation center.

The Project spans three sites on and around South Vermont Avenue, between Fourth and Sixth Streets. It is expected to create 1,400 construction jobs and hundreds more permanent jobs.

“This is an innovative approach,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who championed the transformation of the aging and dilapidated County-owned buildings that currently occupy the three sites. “We are creating jobs while positively transforming once-neglected blight into modern and robust assets.”

The County plans to build a state-of-the-art 21-story, 468,000-sq. ft. office tower to be dubbed the Vermont Corridor County Administration building at 510, 526 and 532 S. Vermont Avenue, with a parking structure on 523 Shatto Place. The office tower will house both the Mental Health department and Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services. The new building will improve working conditions for County employees and allow the department to improve service delivery, from prevention to recovery. Its ground floor will include a peer resource center where people in recovery can be among those assisting the department’s clients, and a retail social enterprise that can provide clients with employment opportunities.

“This is a symbol of cutting edge and inclusive ways of delivering services in the County,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas.

Next door, the existing County building on 550 S. Vermont Avenue and 3175 West Sixth Street will be converted into a mixed-use development. It will have up to 4,100-sq ft. of retail and commercial space on the ground floor, and up to 172 market-rate apartments on the upper floors.

Greg Ames, managing director of the Trammell Crow Company, which will develop both sites, said, “We are truly excited about our partnership with the County on this project and look forward to bringing first class, sustainable office space to the County and its employees, and much needed housing, affordable housing and community space to our neighbors on the Vermont Corridor.”

The third site, on 433 S. Vermont Street, is envisioned to have 72 affordable housing units for seniors, to be developed by Meta Housing. It will also include a street-level community center and ample open space.

The Vermont Corridor is a bustling socioeconomically and culturally diverse neighborhood that includes bus and subway stations; retail and service establishments; markets; restaurants; schools; and the Korean American National Museum and Islamic Center of Southern California.