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Balancing the Elements

By Oliver Lukacs

July 12 -- "Sometimes I feel like an octopus getting pulled in every direction by all eight arms," says Joel Schwartz. The homeless coordinator for the City's Human Services Division, Schwartz sits in his cramped City Hall office, where he keeps an inflatable meditation pillow hidden underneath his desk.

"I've been meditating since I was 14 to keep myself centered," Schwartz says.

Schwartz uses the meditation pillow during the 10 or 15 minutes of privacy he can sneak out of his 10 to 13 hour-long workdays orchestrating the broad network of 22 different organizations sprinkled across the city, each with a different mission and leader. Funded with $2 million in City monies, the organizations served 3,254 of the estimated 4,000 homeless people who circulated through Santa Monica last year.

"I have to drop by and visit all the agencies to see what they're doing in real life, not just in the life on paper," says Schwartz, who has held his post for nearly half a decade. "The least interesting part of my job is I have to track every penny of that two million to make sure it's being spent appropriately."

Looking at his care-free attire of cargo pants and Birkenstock sandals, it's not hard to believe that Schwartz was one of the undergraduate students working on Timothy Leary's LSD experiments at Harvard -- "when it was organic and still legal"-- where got his B.A. in modern and classical Chinese language and literature in the late 60s.

"My language teacher in high school said, 'After God created the world in Hebrew he invented Chinese in order to keep his personal diary,'" Schwartz says as he stands on the steps of City Hall and a little orange ladybug lands on his pink and gray-stripped button shirt. "I thought that was a great recommendation to study that language."

Schwartz originally started out as an aspiring playwright authoring an award-winning play that was cancelled by the Nixon State Department for being too radical. Weeks before the play dealing with the effects of LSD was scheduled to go on a world tour with a finishing debut in New York, it was cancelled because, "It talked about upsetting the establishment."

Schwartz has gone on to become an established author, playwright and screenwriter, penning numerous plays produced on stages (from the Mark Taper Forum to "other great hot spots like Greeley, Colorado, and Amarillo, Texas"), and writing award-winning independent movies and two books.

"There are another half dozen full-length plays and another half dozen screenplays (available for option, if you know anyone looking)," he writes in an email.

After living in a San Francisco-based theatre commune for two years and winning a screenwriter's fellowship to the American Film Institute, Schwartz spent five years working with the likes of Warren Beatty, John Voight, and Jane Fonda on major motion pictures such as "Reds" and "Coming Home."

For "Reds," centered on the life of radical American journalist John Reed in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution, Schwartz remembers Beatty giving him the almost impossible assignment of tracking down and interviewing any of the surviving members of Reed's circle.

The survivors "were all in their seventies, eighties and nineties, and [Beatty] said, ' I don't know where those people are, but start there.' I found out who slept with who, and I tracked them down, the living ones, throughout the country."

Having moved from Silver Lake to Santa Monica in 1972 to escape the polluted air "because my eyes were burning," Schwartz found himself between film gigs unexpectedly helping runaways as a volunteer in Hollywood.

"At that point on I got really interested in working with the runaway youth."

Having had a turbulent adolescence in Newark, New Jersey, Schwartz understood the forces driving runaways into the streets.

"They found it safer being pimped and mugged on Hollywood Boulevard than they did in their on living room. And that really hurt me, and I wanted to get them off the streets."

After two years of intense lobbying and advocacy Schwartz was granted funds to set up a runaway youth shelter called Options House in Hollywood, which is still around today.

"We got Chuck Berry to do our initial fundraiser (in the Hollywood Palladium) because he was coming off one of his coke[ain] charges and he had to do community service," he says with a smirk.

Schwartz then worked at the Stepping Stone youth shelter in Santa Monica to pick up formal clinical training to compliment the psychological education he received at Harvard. There Schwartz was exposed to the cutting-edge teachings of psychologists, such as B.F. Skinner and Eric Erickson, who were at the forefront of the field in their day.

"I didn't at the time realize how big they were," he says laughing. "I just thought they were trying to sell their books."

Having made a name in the then uncharted field of social services for runaway youth, Schwartz was hired to solve a huge youth prostitution scene in the downtown Los Angeles Greyhound Station by skid row.

The station was wired with a whole network of pimps and "catchers" who would trick kids coming off the buses -- mostly runaways looking for stardom in Hollywood -- into prostitution.

"Catchers met the buses, identified which kids people should get," he says tapping his elbow and yanking his ear lobes imitating the baseball-body-language the hustlers used to communicate with each other.

"There was a whole series of people that would follow each kid to the phone. And people pulled out their little magic books, you know, 'If you're ever in L.A. call Joe.' Nobody of course was on the other end of the phone.

"Then they ran out of dimes, and a pregnant woman would approach them and say, 'You look like you need a place to stay. If you can help me out with my pregnancy I'll let you stay with me.' And three or four days later they were set up with they're first 'date,' and they started getting clothes and all that kind of stuff. And they were tricking before realizing it, and they were hookers."

Schwartz beat the catchers to the punch by distributing meal coupons to the bus drivers to give to passengers who were likely targets before they got off. The coupons were cashed in at the Teen Canteen drop-in center, where "we used the food to win their trust." It is a tactic similar to the one used in Santa Monica shelters to connect homeless to city services.

The L.A. police, Schwartz says, employed a different tactic to tackle the problems on skid row.

"If you go down to skid row you'll see things you wouldn't imagine going on in this country right on the streets, and the police ignore all of it. They don't stop the drug deals, they don't stop anybody. They just give jay walking tickets.

"That's the way police control the skid row crowd. They only give you citations for jay walking. Nobody pays attention to a jay walking citation, but if a cop stops you again and finds out that your ticket has now gone to a warrant, they got you."

Schwartz, however, doesn't believe police employ similar strategies in Santa Monica.

Schwartz later helped turn Teen Canteen into another homeless youth drop-in center, which was later moved to Hollywood be at the center of the runaway youth scene after the Greyhound station was closed down.

"Hollywood is where they flocked to become stars. They could use sex for money and there were plenty of dumpsters to dive in for food. Kids are very resourceful."

Drawing on his years of experience working in the film industry, Schwartz developed an approach that nurtured whatever talent the starry-eyed runaways had while cultivating the social skills necessary to get them off the streets permanently.

"My approach was, 'Can you sing? Can you belt something out for me? And if they had something I gave them a lot information about agents and auditions."

The hook was that they would need money to market themselves. "'You need a composite photo if you go to auditions,'" Schwartz would tell them. "None of the kids knew that. 'But that means I got to get a job,' the kids would reply. 'Well lets look at how we can get you a job.' And that's how I would start them off with budgeting.

"The biggest thing was almost every kid said, 'Nobody asked me what I wanted to do, or took me seriously.' So I was able to take them seriously."

Some of the 4,000 to 10,000 kids who come to Hollywood from across the country every year, ranging in age from 12 to 25, didn't even know how to brush their teeth. After six months of training, they were holding down full-time jobs and living on their own, if not embarking on their acting careers.

"We even had a couple of kids that came back and said, 'Could you look over this contract to make sure they're not screwing me.'

"I really loved working with those kids."

Schwartz's lobbying efforts and the support of sympathetic state legislators, help turn the six-month program -- which included everything from sex education to self defense classes -- into a state-funded pilot program that later became a national model for dealing with homeless youth.

Until then, federal runaway programs had mostly been two-week, patch-up jobs designed to "get the kid home. Or if home was not safe, get the kid to a social worker. Many had been thrown out because of their sexuality, and many had drug and alcohol problems by then."

"I was suddenly seeing more and more kids where home was simply not an option. Two weeks was not going to cut it."

Having witnessed the connection first-hand, Schwartz got the term "homeless" added to "runaway" youth in the legislation.

The pilot programs were based in two shelters in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where Schwartz created a corporation with his friends and applied for federal grants to build a shelter connected to a network of social service organizations called the L.A. Youth Network.

"We were hopping for a 20 to 25 percent success rate and got 75 to 80 percent. It was so successful it became a permanent part of the governor's budget." The program is still functioning.

The Network Web site describes the kind of kids it was created for. "They're too volatile for foster homes, too destructive for schools. They often end up in police custody. Their problems with institutions and authorities become chronic. If no one intervenes, they grow up to become welfare burdens at best. At worst, they become criminals."

The success of the program laid the groundwork for the federal Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which became a new source of funding for similar shelters popping up around the country, Schwartz says.

"I like starting up programs, I don't particularly like maintaining them, and that's how I was known around town."

Schwartz's reputation landed him jobs with the Gay and Lesbian Center in West Hollywood to create a homeless and runaway youth shelter that still thrives. He was also hired by the new City of Holywood to develop homeless services. The West Hollywood Homeless Organization he helped create later became Foundation House and is now P.A.T.H.

He attributes his 98 percent grant success rate to his playwriting skills.

"When I got Teen Canteen funded, one of the people from the Health and Human Services wrote, 'You know when I read your application I could smell the kids, I could feel how they lived.' They weren't boring dry applications, and I think that helped."

Schwartz then spent six years setting up an online resource bank of 2,500 programs people with AIDS in Los Angeles County could use. "It was really for everyone. People with AIDS were everyone. It was for the poor. It was for the seniors. It was for the homeless."

After being hired by the City of Santa Monica, Schwartz scaled down the resource bank to 350 organizations on the Westside that offered resources to homeless and low-income people. (The resource bank is not yet online.)

His new job gave him a chance to work in the town he calls home. "I thought, 'Great, that would even bring me home and I can work in my own city' not in Hollyweird or Downtown L.A."

Schwartz believes that the problems that face homeless youth are similar to those facing the homeless in Santa Monica, where he has lived for 30 years. "We helped them design a plan how to get from A, where they were, to Z, their goal. Most people get stuck not knowing what B is."

With Bayside merchants and officials stepping up their call for the City to curb a homeless problem they contend is threatening business Downtown, Schwartz is being pulled from every direction.

"My job is to walk a tightrope, balancing the civil rights of homeless people, residents, visitors, businesses and the City to all use the parks so neither is afraid of each other," Schwartz says.

Though his job is often "frustrating," the rewards, which are often small, are enough to keep him going, Schwartz says.

"I see a lot of people who are stuck in a situation they don't know how to get out of. I never know if I'm doing anything to move them forward, but the belief that I might be helping is enough to keep me going."
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