Community unites to bring more homeless youth services to South LA

Jiovonni Tripplett

Jiovonni Tripplett

Dressed to the nines in a grey pinstriped suit, Jiovonni Tripplett hardly looks like he’d ever been homeless. But it was only months ago that the 23-year-old South Los Angeles native stopped seeing the streets as a necessary way of life.

The only child of a mother struggling to overcome drug and alcohol addiction, Tripplett recalls lashing out at other family members who tried to care for him—including his grandmother, who eventually turned the self-described “wild” child over to the county’s Department of Child and Family Services when he was 8 years old.

Tripplett floated in and out of foster homes, and later, youth detention camps—at 13, he stole a car and was released from foster care to juvenile probation services. Ignoring his family’s efforts to help him, he found solace in a gang and racked up robbery and assault charges.

“I learned to take care of myself by whatever means necessary,” Tripplett said one recent afternoon, an expanse of tattoos peeking out from under his crisp dress shirt collar. “If I had to knock somebody out and take their purse, that’s what I had to do. But getting into trouble is a thrill too… I’d get out and right back to the streets I went.”

The cycle proved hard to break even after a two-year stint at Corcoran State Prison for burglary. Tripplett ended up in jail less than five months after his release, and his grandmother kicked him out. For a while, he stayed with friends or spent nights on the street, but he eventually made his way to Skid Row—sleeping at homeless shelters or selling drugs to pay for a room at a residential hotel.

“Everything you need is right there (on Skid Row),” he said. “Food, housing, drugs, everything… you don’t have to leave.”

A beat later he added, “It’s hard to get out.”

Transitional aged youth

Tripplett’s experience is a common one for a population of young homeless people known to government agencies and other social service providers as “transitional aged youth”—teens and young adults aging out of foster care or the juvenile justice system, often at high risk of becoming homeless. Numerous studies, including a 2002 report from the California Department of Social Services, have found that 25 to 40 percent of foster children become homeless within a year-and-a-half of emancipation.

In Los Angeles—the nation’s “homeless capital”—there are an estimated 3,600 homeless youth. They frequent places like Hollywood, Skid Row and Macarthur Park, where there are considerably more free resources for the homeless than in other neighborhoods. Nearly half of these young people are African-American, and according to homeless service providers around the city, many come from South LA.

“What’s happening is these kids end up in Hollywood or Skid Row because there are no services in South LA where they’re from,” explained Gerald Thompson, Tripplett’s mentor and current employer, who in 2000 founded Pathways to Your Future, a nonprofit dedicated to helping foster and homeless youth become independent adults.

A 2010 report from the Hollywood Homeless Youth Partnership supports Thompson’s observation, noting that the area’s providers have been “serving more African-American youth from South Los Angeles” in recent years. A representative from the Los Angeles Mission, one of Skid Row’s largest homeless shelters, said that while the mission primarily serves older men in their 40s and 50s, many of them are also from South LA.

“They go to Hollywood and Skid Row so the funding goes there too,” Thompson said. “But we have the power and numbers in South LA to be the support for that homeless population.”

Effort to increase services in South L.A.

South LA Tay Collaborative

Members of the South LA Homeless TAY and Foster Care Collaborative, from left to right: Khemare Safu, Thaddeus Carroll, Gerald Thompson, Kandee Lewis, Franco Vega, Jiovonni Tripplett, Ramona Holland

As part of a campaign to demonstrate that capacity, Thompson—who has himself experienced homelessness—serves as chair of the South Los Angeles Homeless TAY and Foster Care Collaborative, a new community effort to increase homeless youth services in that part of the city.

Started in early January, the collaboration is headed by a group of nonprofit workers and other local leaders who have witnessed firsthand the challenges faced by foster and probationary youth from their neighborhoods.

“A lot of these kids come from poverty and don’t know where they’re going to stay after foster care,” Janet Kelly, the collaboration’s vice chair, said. “If you don’t have housing, that’s going to derail everything else in your life.”

Kelly’s nonprofit, Sanctuary of Hope, provides transitional housing and other assistance to South LA foster youth. The organization places an emphasis on education, which can be a path to better job opportunities and greater financial stability. But without guidance and monetary aid, Kelly said, most of these transitioning youth are unable to pursue a trade certification or college degree.

Transportation can pose a similar problem for recently emancipated young adults, who may need to get around but can’t afford a bus or metro pass—a situation which results in fare evasion tickets that Kelly says can turn into bench warrants.

There are intangible issues too, like strong feelings of anger, abandonment, mistrust, and a reluctance—especially among young black men—to identify themselves as homeless. Not many of them, Kelly said, would equate couch surfing or staying out all night with being homeless.

An understanding of these various factors is one reason Kelly believes homeless youth from South LA would be better served in the neighborhoods in which they grew up.

“Homelessness for African-American youth has a different cultural context,” she said. “It’s important (for a service provider) to have that connection and an environment they can return to.”

Kelly acknowledged that some youth might benefit from moving to other communities—but not Skid Row.

“When you’re 18, 19, you’re still developing who you are,” she said. “You let (those kids) go to Skid Row, expose them to high risk behavior… they’re going to end up chronically homeless.”

Franco Vega, who ran an employment center on Skid Row for three years, agreed.

“Whenever a 20-year-old kid would come in, I’d say, ‘We have to get him out of here or he’s going to pick up habits he’s never seen before… and he’s never going to get out,’” he recalled.

Vega, who as a teen ended up in the L.A.’s juvenile probation system after his mother died, now oversees the Right Way Foundation, which he describes as a “mental health provider disguised as an employment agency.” The foundation provides an eight-week therapy and work training program to foster children, with guaranteed job placement upon completion.

Homeless youth need jobs and more

As the employment chair of the South LA collaboration, Vega’s task is to provide jobs to the substantial homeless youth population from the area—something he says he can do, thanks to partnerships with the Staples Center, clothing retailer TJ Maxx and food services and facilities provider Aramark, which employs event security and ticket takers at local venues like the LA Convention Center and USC’s Galen Center.

But Vega said other obstacles must be overcome before he can really do his part.

“I have plenty of available jobs to fill,” he said. “But jobs alone aren’t the answer. These kids need housing and intense one-on-one counseling before they can hold down a job… and that takes funding.”

Funding is a concern across the board for the collaboration, but one its leaders hope to find at least a partial solution for through their first major project—an interfaith summit to be held May 16.InterfaithSummit flyer

The summit, which is being promoted as an informational meeting addressing youth homelessness in South LA, is an attempt to engage the area’s sizeable faith-based community with the issue.

“To my knowledge, every faith tradition says something about how we should look out for those who are vulnerable,” said Rev. Kelvin Sauls, senior pastor of Holman United Methodist Church, where the summit will be hosted. “This is an opportunity for the religious community to become relevant again to South LA.”

That opportunity, Sauls said, could manifest in several ways.

“All these churches have assets,” he said. “How can we make them into places where (homeless youth) can experience a restoration of their dignity?”

One way, Sauls suggested, is by offering up religious buildings as a physical address for people who are homeless to list on job applications, or as a place to provide supportive services and even temporary shelter. Another way would be to utilize what he called “human resources.”

“We have professionals in all our congregations—lawyers, for example. Why can’t we mobilize them to provide assistance to these youth?” he asked. Other people, he said, could on occasion cook a hot meal or donate money.

Sauls, who in late March was appointed to the LA Homeless Services Authority’s Board of Commissioners by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, said a concerted effort between public and private organizations was necessary to tackle youth homelessness.

“LAHSA cannot do it alone,” he said. “Collaboration is essential if we’re going to be effective.”

More than 150 people—including representatives from both probation and foster care services, youth group organizers, state and local politicians, and members of the Baptist, Methodist, Catholic and Muslim faiths—have indicated they will attend the summit.

If nothing else, the collaboration’s leaders hope the summit will raise some much-needed awareness for the homeless youth population in South LA, something Tripplett—who now serves as the collaboration’s youth chair—believes is a key first step.

“Kids my age are out there losing themselves, but ain’t nobody else advocating for us in South LA,” he said. “We have to bring it to their attention.”


  1. Alvin Pierre says:

    Thats my brother in christ shinning as he should.. Im proud of you man keep it up.. Thats a good look..

  2. Amber Johnson says:

    I’m proud of you too Jiovonni and keep staying positive 🙂

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