This September the Los Angeles Mission celebrated its 75th year of serving the hungry and homeless of Skid Row. RRD recently had the terrific honor of interviewing its president, Herb Smith, who has been involved with the L.A. Mission since 1999. With over 20 years of experience working for nonprofits and a stint as a missionary in Brazil, Smith continues to actively serve at the L.A. Mission for special events and meals. We asked him about the L.A. Mission’s work and the special challenges it faces with the coming of the Holidays.
RRD: Can you give a brief description of the services you offer for the homeless in Los Angeles?
Smith: The Los Angeles Mission provides emergency services on-site for the homeless. These include overnight beds, meals, restrooms & showers, clothing, pastoral counseling, and referral services. We have outreach staff to address specific needs such as bus tokens, computer use, Learning Center access or medical needs. In addition to the emergency services we provide 12 month residential transitional housing combined with recovery programs for men and women. We provide supportive services to families through Mommy and Me, food boxes, diapers and formula and other specific needs. Each year we conduct four holiday-themed street meals that target specific community needs with services such as medical care with foot washing, Christmas gifts, hygiene kits, backpacks, school supplies and new clothing.
RRD: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Smith: Simply put, to help people. That can be a smile from someone enjoying a meal to a program graduate walking across the stage receiving a GED and a new shot at life. It can be a mom or dad saying thank you for getting my son off the streets and back into our family. Or, it can be a child saying how happy they are to have mom back in their life.
RRD: The economic situation has put a burden on the non-profit sector. How has your agency been able to adapt to a decline in funding sources combined with an increased demand for your services?
Smith: This economy has been challenging. Social service agencies like the Los Angeles Mission have fared better than some because our services are critical life supporting things like food and shelter. We have had to decrease budgets, reduce staff in “non-essential” areas, add more responsibilities to existing staff and increase our donation requests to the community. We have added social marketing and web advertising to attract new and younger donors. And, we have prayed a lot! Our budget is down nearly 25% since 2007 and our services are constant due to capacity like beds or up in meals and other services.
RRD: Do you anticipate a rising percentage of homelessness in L.A. County over the next several years?
Smith: We do expect to see an increase in homelessness due to several key factors. Government service budgets are strained: service funds are being diverted to housing rather than housing being incrementally addressed. Prisoner release issues have already begun to increase our skid row population almost 100% since August. The overall economy is still very soft especially for unskilled labor jobs. A majority of those we serve are unskilled and will require training for jobs in a recovered economy. And, foreclosures still remain an issue so food, security and housing are challenged in household budgets.
RRD: The L.A. Mission provided over 3,000 meals during its Christmas event last year. How do you and the L.A. Mission prepare for such a rewarding/challenging event?
Smith: We provide nearly 600,000 meals each year. Our street meals are special and require planning several months in advance. Our team selects themes, solicits financial support and food or other gifts in kind. We do outreach to celebrities, media, public officials and others that support the work we do in the community. And we build internal momentum with team meetings, encouragement and prayer for each other and those we serve. We recruit hundreds of volunteers and we train them. At the end we look at each other and say… don’t worry if it turns out just the way we expected; nobody else will know so long as everyone is served and has a fun and safe time.
RRD: How many volunteers donate their time during the holiday season?
Smith: We have over 4,000 volunteers a year, many of them during the holiday season. About 500 volunteers attend each street event, and hundreds help out in advance with the preparation of food, donations, wrapping gifts and silverware, etc. Celebrities and media outlets also donate their time to talk about the Mission and to cover our events.
RRD: Are there any prerequisites for people who are interested in receiving the Christmas meal?
Smith: No, we serve anyone who comes to the Mission without question. That is true of all our meals during the year. We do require that people act safely towards others or they will be asked to leave.
RRD: Not only does the L.A. Mission serve meals to the homeless during the holiday season, but volunteers provide thousands of gifts to children as well. If any of our readers would like to contribute, who should they contact?
Smith: Gifts of toys, clothing, food and other items can be delivered to the Mission dock at 310 Winston Street, Los Angeles. Ideas for items to donate can be found on our website under the Donations + Meet Basic Needs tab. They can contact Tina Russek at 213-629-1227 x 437 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Complete contact information is available on our website.