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People Helping People: A Quest for Hope

By Iuna Dones

For the Greater Good
Some of the communities in the South Central area are dedicated to improving the community through their services. From a quaint beauty salon to a boxing store, all agree on one thing: improving the community starts with the individual.
For addicts, a struggle to regain normalcy
Petty crimes such as theft are a pervasive problem in South Central, with one specific item being the most targeted of all - gold chains. It's an issue with complex motivations involving community and culture, and one that appears entrenched in South Central life.
Rallying the Troops: An army bringing spiritual salvation
The Salvation Army’s Youth and Community Center on South Central Avenue in Los Angeles is a spiritual sanctuary for those who are looking for guidance through Christ. Soldiers come together in the name of God to give back to the community through volunteerism, following their pastor, or “officer.” The center focuses its service on the children and families within the community, providing them a safe haven where they can find proximity to God.

Harrison Soberanis dedicated more than 21 years of his life to his organization, but the organization he devoted himself to for so long might soon disappear right before his eyes.

People Helping People, founded by Soberanis with the help of his wife and just a handful of volunteers, is a non-profit economic development corporation focused on providing the poor, the hungry, and the unemployed community of South Central Los Angeles with hot meals, a roof over their heads, and a way for them to get back on their feet.

The inspiration for founding such a selfless organization, said Soberanis, came from the news; ABC7 News was broadcasting a report illustrating the poverty of Skid Row in downtown L.A. “At that time there were thousands of homeless men and women laying on the streets like cats, like dogs, like rats,” said Soberanis. “When I saw that, it broke my heart, and God spoke to me and told me that I need to help those people in whatever way I can.”

Since its first stages in the early 1990s, People Helping People has grown in both size and success, and over the years it has built a variety of programs aimed to help the poor and the homeless in every fundamental aspect of life, said Soberanis. Until June of 2011, two of its most important programs were the Year-Round Shelter Program and the Winter Shelter Program. The former provided housing for 115 single men and women, 365 days a year, while the latter provided housing for an additional 250 homeless single men and women from Dec. 1 until March 30. Both programs offered hot meals, showers, and additional case management and job services that helped the homeless search for permanent housing and work possibilities.

Clients were expected to pay about $150 - $200 per person, for a stay of up to three months. Many of them were able to pay this fee through their entitlement funds received form the county or through Supplemental Security, while others held jobs. People Helping People also gave out about 390-400 motel vouchers to families in need, allowing them to find shelter in several motels and hotels in the area, and set up a weekly food bank during which 75 bags of groceries were distributed.

But on June 30, 2011, the city of Los Angeles officially cut all funding given to the organization. For the Winter Shelter program, the city imposed additional restrictions that required the organization to find a building large enough to house 250 people prior to receiving any funding. This meant that People Helping People had to pay three months of rent, from September until the November, only relying on client fees. Soberanis deemed this to be impossible, so he didn’t attempt to apply for funding.

He did, however, apply for funding for the Year-Round Shelter Program, which he had received for eight consecutive years. The city denied their application, claiming the organization had not met certain required performance standards. The contract People Helping People had signed the previous year demanded that the organization placed 60 percent of its clients in permanent housing. For the first time in eight years, the organization didn’t meet this standard.

According to Soberanis, about 2000 homeless men and women found shelter at People Helping People each year, but a high percentage of them only stayed for one or two nights.

“How can we provide case management services and find permanent housing for clients who are here for only a couple of days?” said Soberanis. Despite the strong appeals by Soberanis and the organization, the city did not reverse its decision.

The tables quickly turned for the organization: Soberanis had to dramatically cut its staff for both the Winter Shelter Program and the Year-Round Shelter Program. While originally there were 70 staff members for the former program and 35 for the latter, now there are no paid staff members. There is only room for 22 homeless people every night, and client fees are used to strictly pay for rent, food and utilities. Although the shelter hasn’t stopped its weekly food banks, it will soon have to. In January of 2012, People Helping People will have to indefinitely close its doors to the very same community it has been welcoming with open arms for the past 21 years.

Soberanis might be able to find another way to finance People Helping People, but if he’s not, his efforts to helping the underprivileged do not end here, he said. And despite the unfortunate circumstances, Soberanis keeps a constant smile on his face. “Even with not having the same funding, there is not a dull moment of my life, I’m always excited,” he said. “Like last night, I went to play basketball with young guys, 19 and 20 years old, and here I am this morning back to work, feeling good, a little stiff, but…”

Devotion to God, devotion to others
Joseph Johnson used to be an engineer; he's now the manager of People Helping People.

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People Helping People's current location: 5701 So. San Pedro St., Los Angeles, CA.

People Helping People donates clothes every Friday morning.

Harrison Soberanis, founder of People Helping People

The organization's kitchen.