NORTH HOLLYWOOD, CA — The NoHo Home Alliance has been helping to fight to end homelessness in North Hollywood since 2016, and thanks to a recent fundraiser, they'll be able to keep doing just that.
The center has become NoHo’s one-stop shop for people lacking the essentials. The organization offers showers, medical and housing assistance, and the church even operates as a home address for people without a place to receive mail and packages.
But on Saturday, the nonprofit decided to try something new: a socially distanced sleep out to help those they serve.
For the grassroots organization, it truly took a team response. Stephanie Jaeger, founder of the Home Alliance and Pastor of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, credits Sarah Villa for the initial spark.
“We needed a fundraiser, but didn’t know what to do,” Jaeger said. “Sarah brought the idea up. And then other people who are educators wanted to add an educational component, because that’s their thing. Different people bringing different pieces... It was a community effort.”
The mission was two-fold: to raise enough money for a desperately needed kitchen upgrade, and to give NoHo residents a sliver of what it feels like to sleep on the streets. Such events have long been a successful tool to encourage empathy toward the homeless community, but in the age of the coronavirus, pulling it off safely and successfully became harder than ever.
The group decided to bring Zoom into the equation, live streaming the event and encouraging viewers to sleep outside at their own homes.
The multi-faceted event featured video testimonials from unhoused residents who had came to the center for support, and standup comedy from comics like Dana Eagle and Angel Gaines. Luis Oliart, a musician serving as Advocacy Lead for the Home Alliance, screened the music video for his latest single "Love's A Lost Art," which was well received by the audience.
Singer La’Vel Stacy kicked off the show with a stirring rendition of Andra Day’s “Rise Up,” packing layers of emotion into an already moving song.
“I thought his rendition of ‘Rise Up’ was really the theme,” Jaeger said. “I wanted to start the program with that, it was very powerful to me. The reality is, housing injustice is racial injustice. So much of what we see, in terms of challenges with the homeless community, they’re intertwined with issues of racial justice.”
California State Assembly member Richard Bloom also stopped by the event, speaking alongside Jaeger about the responsibility of local officials to solve the homelessness crisis. Bloom, who has held his position since 2012, said it was imperative that advocates for supportive housing make their voices heard.
. @jaegerpastorLA and @RichardBloom are back! They're talking about how people can voice their concerns to their representatives. They get a lot of negative feedback so it's important for folks with lived experience and advocates to weigh in. pic.twitter.com/7Pt7ok3QTP
— NoHo Home Alliance (@nohohomeorg) October 4, 2020
“There are so many people who want to complain to their city council members and say 'yes, you have to do something about homelessness, but don’t do it down the street from me,'" Bloom said. "There are more than enough people who bring negative feedback to us as individuals. So, it’s extremely important for people who are advocates for providing solutions to homelessness to weigh in with us."
Clemmie Williams’ performance was especially noteworthy. Williams, who had come to the center in need of support, shared a story of how virtually everything in his possession had been stolen from him while sleeping on a park bench one night. The next day, he went to the NoHo Home Alliance, and was eventually able to secure housing and get his life back on track.
“The fact that Clemmie participated,” Jaeger said. “He was able to tell a little bit of his story, that was really powerful. It’s about the people.”
Those who did attend the event in-person slept in a courtyard space at the St. Matthews Lutheran Church. Noel Gibson, an actress who catered the event with her husband, said she was excited for newcomers to experience the feeling of sleeping on the streets.
“I was excited for everyone to experience it,” she said. “To be honest, I can never explain it until you actually live it, and then you get it. It’s still just one night, so I can’t even imagine every single day.”
Gibson has done sleep outs before, and said her biggest worry going into the night was having a run-in with cockroaches. Overnight, though, the noise made the biggest impact on her, along with the dull aches that plagued her body after waking up the next morning.
“I kept thinking, how do you get peace and quiet?" she said. “And then waking up with my body aching. I’m young, I don’t even know how people who are 40, 50 plus, with injuries that are constantly occurring, how they can keep doing it.”
Just about everyone who slept outside shared the struggle of tossing and turning, and few slept without any issues. Gibson said she also realized how much the experience could shape a person’s mood, especially in the mornings without knowing where the next meal might come from.
“We call it hangry,” what is ‘sleepy + hangry + no socializing?’” she asked.
For Jaeger, the last one to go to bed, the moment of stillness was incredibly centering after dedicating herself to running the event. The fundraiser brought in a total of $21,199, enough to complete the kitchen upgrade and put a few dollars toward program improvements. “We’re so grateful, we had to raise a certain minimum and we covered that,” she said.
The pastor also had words of advice for community residents opposed to permanent housing in North Hollywood, or fear that encampments drive down home value or lead to decreased safety.
“If you want to solve the issue of encampments, we need to support housing,” she said. “Especially permanent, supportive housing. Period. It takes time to build a relationship with unhoused neighbors, to help them get ready. That’s what we do.”