Shining Light

Heather Carmichael, executive director at My Friend’s Place, has worked to address youth homelessness for over 20 years. (My Friend’s Place/Submitted)

There are nearly 3,000 young adults and children currently experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County, according to reports. To help shed light on a side of the crisis that has often fallen under the radar, volunteer-based organization My Friend’s Place has built a continuum of programs and services that have helped uplift young people for the past four decades.

“The nature of the organization is really to create a sense of safety and belonging and to see a whole young person so that they can truly connect with themselves in all the opportunities around them,” said Heather Carmichael, executive director at My Friend’s Place. “We work very hard to create a plethora of opportunities for a young person to continue to learn, to discover, to evolve, while also addressing the crisis that they’re in.”

 Alongside supplying services like food, water, showers, clothing and transportation, My Friend’s Place offers crisis care, education and well-being programs focused on creating stability and self-sufficiency. The Safe Haven Program provides daytime shelter and drop-in services; the Transformative Education Program hosts workshops and one-on-one sessions in educational fields like creative arts; and the Health and Well-Being Program connects youth with on- and off-site medical, health and wellness systems.

“The needs of young people are different; they’re distinct,” Carmichael said. “We want to create pathways for young people that orient them away from the homeless service system if that is possible for that young person. We will always have vulnerable community members that will need a larger safety net so that they can live their most purposeful, meaningful life, but if we intervene early in young people’s lives, they’re going to take this on and they’re going to be your neighbor. … They’re going to be your teacher. They’re going to be your legislator. 

“That is the power we need to remember in early intervention in young people’s lives. … We have very intentionally garnered a beautiful community of support so that we have the most flexible funding possible to address the most benign to complex issue that a young person might bring forward.”

Carmichael worked with My Friend’s Place for 17 years before becoming executive director in 2009. She previously held leadership roles with the Hollywood Homeless Youth Partnership for over 20 years and worked on staff at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. 

She described one of the biggest takeaways from her work throughout the decades as the fact that “these are our young people from the Los Angeles community. I would say that the largest portion of who comes seeking My Friend’s Place assistance are from our neighboring communities. … It might be Glendale; it might be somewhere in the San Fernando Valley or South Los Angeles.”

Carmichael explained that, on a citywide level, homelessness is primarily approached through the lens of adulthood and that the response systems and legislation built for the crisis do not account for the pathway of a young person.   

“Young people are being hurt in communities and in families, and they’re fleeing for their safety or they’re pushed away because of who they are,” she said. “When we are thinking about developing affordable housing (and) permanent supportive housing, which is really, really important, what is that opportunity for a young person that is new to the street? 

“As we’re emerging from the pandemic, our community understands that affordable housing is out of reach for a lot of people, and particularly for younger generations. Coming up and through school looking for a livable wage does not really afford for them to have the same independence that many generations have had, so we’re really anticipating that we’ll see more young people from our community and other communities. We’re positioning ourselves, getting ready to ensure that we can be responsive.”

Carmichael said that young people experiencing homelessness often come from marginalized communities. They’re in schools that have not been invested in or that don’t have the resources to recognize and accommodate for their struggle. There may have been an economic disrupt in their own life or their family’s life, and this disruption may have landed them in a foster care system that Carmichael described as “completely overwhelmed” in LA.

“I think it’s really important for us to remember that young people’s pathways are different, and the response system may need to be different,” she said. “It’s really the beauty and the brilliance of our community of support that has afforded us to really invite a young person in as a whole being and to love them. Social services are not supposed to love someone, right?

“What we are learning is in crisis, for you, for me, for the young person, you must feel safe. You must feel like you belong. You kind of need to feel loved in order to imagine that you are able to do something else, that you can trust a community to help you transition beyond this particular moment in time. … Being loved, that kind of feels like being a part of a community that is not only about you but about something bigger.” 

Carmichael also explained that building an identity is paramount, as young adulthood is a time when many people begin to develop and explore who they are and what defines them, and that labeling someone as a “homeless person” can cause damage.

“If we force a young person to identify with the experience of homelessness, that’s not a destination,” she said. “You do not want a young person to define themselves around this experience. You’ve got to keep a person future oriented and believing in their future.”

Youth homelessness is often difficult to observe and measure, as many young adults and children do not engage with public institutions at the same rate as other demographics, according to reports. Carmichael expressed gratitude for the support of people across LA in helping My Friend’s Place shed light on the issue, including celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Kobe and Vanessa Bryant, and Halsey.

“My Friend’s Place has been so fortunate to be a small but mighty organization with a lot of heartbeats that has gotten star power, beautiful people that have platforms to stand on, to share their platform, to draw attention to the issue, to the young people and to the organization,” Carmichael said. “Visibility can be a game changer for young people. I think, as a response system for many years, all the beautiful organizations working with young people experiencing homelessness tried to do it under the radar, thinking it was a protective mechanism for young people. But now we absolutely know that we must garner visibility in the mind, heart and soul of our community so that young people don’t get left behind.”

To help support its programs and services and to celebrate 35 years as an organization, My Friend’s Place is hosting a Ending Youth Homelessness gala on Saturday, May 13, at Hollywood Palladium. Carmichael hopes it will help raise more awareness to the issue.

“We want these young people to exist in the collective mind and heart of Los Angeles as we vote, as we create response systems, as we develop laws and responses that don’t further marginalize young people,” Carmichael said. “As a community we’re only as strong as our most vulnerable.”

Ending Youth Homelessness: A Benefit for My Friend’s Place

WHEN: 6 to 11 p.m. Saturday, May 13

WHERE: Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles

COST: General admission is $250