Miguel Capano moved back and forth in the "processing station" for the homeless set up in two trailers near the Pavilion at Venice Beach. Phones rang, the chairs were full and more people were standing around, waiting.
"So what will that do for me?" one homeless man demanded after Capano suggested he attend a nearby "job readiness" workshop.
"New techniques," Capano said, in a lowered tone, as if imparting a secret. The man stared back with a disbelieving expression, but then grunted he might "try it."
Most of the people working at the Venice "outreach program," established by the city in response to local complaints about growing numbers of people living on the beach, are social service professionals.
Working as Go-Betweens
But Capano, a street-wise 38-year-old, is without a home, like the people he tries to help. He and another homeless man, David Bryant, are supposed to be "a bridge between the homeless and the service providers," Capano said.
The two became volunteers at the city's "urban campground" in downtown Los Angeles while they were living there. Officials found it hard to attract the homeless to the job programs they set up, Deputy Mayor Grace Davis said, but these two "could communicate with people."
Of the 240 who found jobs through the campground services, Bryant and Capano "were responsible for over 100 placements," Davis said. "They not only motivated people to connect with the system, but people would fall back on them in terms of transportation, a haircut or whatever it was they were needing. And that was very important."
May Get Paid
Capano and Bryant are still homeless and still unpaid for their efforts in Venice, although Davis said the city is "looking into" how to compensate them.
There are an estimated 2,000 homeless people in the beach area, but city officials say this program is concentrating on about 350 believed to be living between Rose and Windward avenues. They are the most visible, living in makeshift shanties on the sand or spread out along the beach walls and jetties, or around the Venice Pavilion.
So far, more than 160 people have been interviewed and referred to a variety of services. Officials are not sure when the temporary program, which started Oct. 5, will end, but they say when it does the beachfront encampments will no longer be allowed.
Experienced in the Field
Bryant is an unruffled man with seemingly endless patience, while Capano, thin and restless, is incapable of sitting still. Bryant, 43, was once an RTD bus driver and a leader of Love Camp, a communal street camp on Skid Row last winter. Capano, 38, a former drug counselor, has been homeless for nearly a year.
They came to Venice, they said, because they share a dream of setting up their own program, which they call the Homeless Employment Labor Pool (HELP). It would combine job placement with a coordinated shelter, food and support system.
So when the city camp closed, they worked, painting and repairing a condominium in Arcadia, and lived there in the meantime.
Now, Capano stays in a tent behind Venice Pavilion, and Bryant, with his pregnant wife, lives out of an old car, donated by someone who became aware of their efforts last summer.
At the trailer one recent afternoon, Capano gazed quietly at another homeless man, who wouldn't look at him but only stared fixedly at the wall.
"How you fixed for clothes?" he asked. He knew this was likely to be a sore point. Always expecting rejection by "regular" people, he said, the homeless tend to be extremely sensitive about how they are dressed.
"These are the only clothes I have," said the man, who gave his name as Sam. "These aren't presentable."
Capano and Bryant had found a thrift store manager who donates six pieces of clothing to anyone they bring in.
"I'll take you there right now," Bryant said. He had been on the phone, answering classified newspaper ads on behalf of the homeless. Within minutes, he was ushering Sam, whose blank look was now replaced by a hopeful expression, out of the trailer and into his battered car.
Jobs Are the Goal
The city's emphasis, as it was at the camp, is on finding jobs for the homeless. Bryant finds this frustrating, "a mission impossible. There are so many things needed to make a person employable." Though the pair has no statistics, they believe most of the people who found jobs last summer were unable to keep them.
"They need help with their housing and help with their social problems," Capano said. "What's the sense of putting a person into a job if they're only going to be there an hour?"
Capano believes drug and alcohol abuse problems are worse at the beach than among the downtown homeless. Another problem that is showing up, he noted, is lack of identification, as required of all workers under the new federal immigration law.
They find the Venice homeless very different from those they dealt with downtown, Capano said.
"There area a lot of futuristic concepts out here, like put barges out in the ocean, fill it with sand, plant palm trees and go out there. At 3 a.m. someone woke me up to tell me that," he said with a laugh.
They don't see women with children, as was common at the campground, but there are more white people. Most of the campground homeless were black. When they go out on the beach to do "outreach" counseling, Capano said, "They're more argumentative."
The Venice homeless seem extremely independent and entrepreneurial, he said. "There are people who have been living in Venice for three to 10 years, who make things with their hands and try to market it on the boardwalk." Most, he added, don't want to change.
But many of them have been coming to the outreach trailers, nonetheless. "A lot of them realize that the scene on the beach is over," Capano said, "and they're going to have to find an alternative."