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Nick Semensky turns the van on to Santa Monica Boulevard and pulls up to the curb near a group of young people who have gathered outside of a drug store. While he turns on the van’s hazard lights, his colleague, Moises Cabrera, says hello.
If not for the “Covenant House” printed on the side of the van, their presence could be perceived as nefarious in nature. This section of the boulevard near Highland Avenue is known for prostitution, after all.
But the two are street outreach workers for Covenant House California, and a significant portion of their job entails looking for homeless or at-risk youth in Los Angeles and linking them with services — from their organization and others.
“Where are you staying now?” Cabrera asks a 22-year-old man after giving him a brief rundown of Covenant House’s mission.
“I’m not sure, because that depends. Cause, like, my boyfriend, I think, has my cell phone — I’m hoping. And I don’t know where the hell he is. I haven’t talked to him in two days. So as soon as I get that, I can probably start finding places,” the young man responds.
“Well let us know. We’re out until 11:30, and we’re going to be in the area.”
Cabrera hands him a business card and offers a sack lunch and water to others in the group. As Semensky pulls away, Cabrera repeats the young man’s name to himself a few times, and makes notes in a log.
The two have never seen this individual, so they write down his basic information and the services provided. Memorization is a big part of the job — names (usually nicknames), faces, ages, locations, needs.
For five to six hours each weeknight, Cabrera and Semensky cruise Los Angeles looking for individuals who meet Covenant House California’s target demographic — 18 to 24 years old and on the street.
Cabrera grew up in Hollywood, and learned of the job through a friend. He is the veteran of the team, having worked for Covenant House for seven years. Semensky is a Philadelphia transplant who has been with the organization for four years. He was a social worker before moving to California.
Hollywood is Ground Zero for their efforts, but they also drive around Venice Beach, downtown and other areas. Generally, they have 30 sack lunches to offer, and the food and water helps initiate the conversation between them and the youth. However, a recent donation has enabled them to offer more meals on this particular night.
“The main goal is to bring them back to Covenant House and provide them housing,” Cabrera said, adding that they try to help people who are outside the organization’s demographic.
That was the case on Hollywood Boulevard near McCadden Place. In the midst of all the bright lights and noise was a Spaniard who had just landed in Los Angeles a few days prior. Semensky hits the hazard lights again.
“How you doing, man? You OK?” Cabrera asks.
The 26-year-old man explains that he is trying to get into a hostel, “but if you have food, that would be awesome.” He finishes the rest of the conversation munching on chips.
Cabrera tells the individual that they can possibly get him emergency shelter for a night, but warns that it is far away — 38th Street and Broadway Place.
“You think for tonight they will help me?” the man asks.
After making a phone call and ensuring that the shelter has room, Cabrera gives the young man a Covenant House California business card and directions to Pathways to Home.
The individual is not alone in his situation. Cabrera said young people frequently move to Hollywood without proper accommodations.
“They don’t realize how expensive it is out here, or they’re not prepared to be out here,” he said. Cabrera added that many of the potential clients in the area have only been in Los Angeles for a week or two. Sometimes, the outreach workers meet them the same day they arrive.
“They have a different look to them. They look like they’re not tourists. They look like they’re not younger people hanging out. They look like they’re kind of trying to find something to figure it out. They have that look to them. I can’t quite explain it. …You literally see them in the moment trying to figure it out,” Semensky said, adding that many “just wing it.”
Cabrera mentioned a young person who recently came to Los Angeles from New York with a friend. The young woman wound up in a bad situation, but the outreach team was able to offer assistance, he said.
“She’s actually on a Greyhound bus as we speak,” Cabrera said, adding that the young woman’s mother is “very happy” she’s on her way back home. “It’s rewarding to get her back to New York and back with family because she didn’t have any family here. She came here because she just wanted to see how L.A. was. …It was no vacation for her.”
As one might suspect, the work is not always rosy. Cabrera said it’s particularly disheartening witnessing a person’s decline due to drug use.
“They’re just so into it that they’d rather be out here and continue living the lifestyle that they do because of the need for the drugs. …You try your best to help them, but if they don’t want the help, there’s pretty much nothing we can do,” he said.
Cabrera and Semensky cited an instance in which a young man they knew well was stabbed to death, they said. While tragedies do occur, they try to focus on ensuring that the next youth they encounter will have a different fate.
“It’s just very rewarding when we’re out on the boulevard and you see somebody come to you and I don’t recognize them because it’s been years since I’ve seen them. But they have a family now and they’re fine, you know? They’ll thank you and it kind of brings you back,” Cabrera said. “That’s just an incredible feeling, you know? …It’s awesome. They never forget. It could be the smallest thing, just like having a conversation with them. They remember everything, and they appreciate it.”
They said they have linked many young people to services at Covenant House, though they wish the number was higher. Cabrera said it can take time, as was the case with a youth who ended up helping on the van trips as a Covenant House California intern. The outreach team had worked with him for approximately two years.
“That was a big step for him. It might take a month. It might take the first time we encounter them for them to come back, or it might take more than a year for them … to seek housing with us,” Cabrera said.
Semensky said the work can take the team in a lot of different directions on any given day, which is why it’s important to maintain relationships with other service organizations.
“A lot of it’s not planned. You have to just keep switching gears on the fly. …It’s never the same day, same thing out here,” he added.
For information or to donate, call (323)461-3131 or visit www.covenanthousecalifornia.org.
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