By Vince Meehan
Eric Lovett is a fireball of energy and enthusiasm. Ask anyone who has ever met him, and they will agree. Founder and executive director of Urban Street Angels is a local nonprofit whose purpose is to house homeless transitional-age youth, those who are in the 18-to-25-year range.
The Alabama native’s positive, can-do personality is infectious and exactly what you would want in the director of a nonprofit whose mission is to rescue youth from the streets. His Southern drawl is a thick as his enthusiasm and easily his most recognizable feature. Lovett recently leased a building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Ash Street where he can now make his six-year vision a reality. As Lovett readied the premises for its open house, he bounced around the building high-fiving his staff, volunteers, and residents.
The director is still stinging from watching his beloved Alabama Crimson Tide lose to Clemson Tigers in the college football championships the night before. The Alabama Crimson Tide logo can be found everywhere in his office. For a second, his enthusiasm gets knocked down two notches as he stares off while reflecting on the game. But just as quick, his eyes light up again as he explains how his vision has come to life.
“This building is owned by Father Joe’s, and they gave me a screamin’ deal on the lease,” Lovett said while beaming with pride. “The building comes with a large commercial grade kitchen, and both a gym and art studio downstairs. It’s just amazing how this all came together!”
This first-of-its-kind housing complex not only serves as a home, but as a resource center where his residents can seek job training and employment opportunities, as well as holistic health care and counseling.
“We have our own van and take it around San Diego contacting homeless youth who might qualify for our help,” Lovett said. “Ocean Beach is by far ground zero for these kids. All of our youth are homeless, they deal with mental illness, and we are combating the stigma of that, and then saying you can do it, and we can help you do it.”
Candidates for housing must meet three qualifications to enter the program. First, they must be homeless and between the ages of 18 and 25 (also known as transition age youth or TAY). They must also have been identified with mental illness and qualify for services in the San Diego County’s Behavioral Health Services System of Care.
Qualified participants can enroll in the county-sponsored Just Be U three-month program, which includes support, housing and linkage to ongoing behavioral health treatment. After completion of the Just Be U program, they graduate and then can register for the nine-month Short-Term and Bridge Housing program. Participants then receive case management and an interactive roadmap to achieve success, along with safe, supportive housing. With this new center, Urban Street Angels aims to successfully help more than 100 homeless youth off the streets by 2020, and more than 500 by 2025.
“On any given night, we have 1,000 homeless youth on the streets of San Diego,” Lovett said. “Many have been sexually or physically abused, a lot have experienced emotional abuse. Close to 100 percent of our youth have dealt with mental health issues in some shape, sort, or fashion. Therefore I saw the need — six years ago, when I started this — to make a difference in the community.”
Lovett started by going to the streets with water and sandwiches for the kids and providing basic life necessities. He saw there was no real dedicated homes for these youth and opened up his apartment to house a few.
“I started with two, and all my friends said, ‘Eric, don’t do it, they’ll rob, they’ll steal from you, what are you doing?’” Lovett said. “But I felt the need to do that. So we started there, moved up to six in my own home, and over the period of the last few years we’ve grown, and now we’ll have 35 living in this new facility.”
Lovett also realized that beyond housing, these youths needed jobs and job training. So with his nonprofit, he created a social enterprise 8 West which creates high-end natural soap and candles.
“I started that in my own home as well,” Lovett said. “The name comes from — at the end of Interstate 8 West — is Ocean beach, which is one of the largest demographics for homeless youth in the country.”
Lovett uses 8 West to teach job skills and partners with 20 other companies to get his youth ready for the work force. He lets the kids gravitate to whichever aspect of the business they feel the most comfortable with. Some choose to manufacture the soap, while others sell it at local farmer’s markets. Others are involved in creating the marketing graphics
“I’ve always said, a job is what you’re paid for, but a calling is what you’re made for,” Lovett said. “And that’s the whole purpose of 8 West.”
Lovett credits 8 West with solidifying an existing partnership with the county, which helps fund his programs. This includes not only his new building, but also satellite emergency shelters such as Missiongathering Christian Church in North Park. He specifically credits Cecily Thornton-Stearns of the county’s Behavioral Health and Human Services Department with making that happen.
“Cecily came to me in March of 2016 after seeing our soaps somewhere, and she was like, ‘So what are you doing?’” Lovett said. “I told her I wanted to house people and I wanted to teach them sustainability. I wanted to give them a hand up, not just a hand out. She then said we want to partner with you — we want to pay for the beds. The county of San Diego now funds 90 percent of all our programs. We are just so thankful for the county and their belief in this and changing homelessness.”
Lovett himself came from a background of being rejected early in his life because of his sexuality.
“I was a Christian musician — from the South, Alabama — and naturally when I came out, I lost everything I had,” Lovett reflected. “That was many years ago, and I never wanted a young person to feel rejected or ostracized because of their sexuality, the color of their skin, where they’re from or who they choose to love. So that’s what really motivated me to start this.”
Because of this, Lovett has strong ties to the local LGBTQ community.
“Our organization is not just for LGBTQ, but we probably have 40 percent that are,” Lovett said. “We accept transgender, those who identify as how they identify, and we also accept undocumented. Basically we believe in giving hope to those who need it.”
Lovett found San Diego the perfect place to start his vision. He credits the accepting nature of San Diegans as inspiration.
“San Diego is like the South to me, people here want to meet you face to face; they are very hospitable,” Lovett said. “So I felt at home, but I also felt … welcomed. People here didn’t care if I was gay, they don’t care what color your skin is. So that was a big calling card for me.”
Autumn Rapson is a current resident of Urban Street Angels, and her story is somewhat typical of the youth housed there. She, too, identifies as LGBTQ. The Waco, Texas native grew up with an abusive mom, which caused her to “house hop” and have run-ins with Child Protective Services. After running off to San Diego, she experienced several mental health breakdowns, which resulted in hospitalization. After a few unsuccessful attempts to seek treatment at several programs, she got news that a dear friend had taken their life.
“When I found that out, I spun into a really deep dark place,” Rapson said. “I was then in and out of the hospital quite a lot and had a few attempts myself. I was losing everything and felt completely hopeless, I couldn’t honestly say like, if someone said, ‘What do you see tomorrow?’ I’d say, I’m not gonna make it to tomorrow.”
As a last resort, Rapson posted a plea for help on Facebook saying she had nowhere to go and asked for leads. Somebody posted back the name Sunny Rey, a case manager with Just Be U. Rey picked her up at the hospital when she was discharged, and she has been there since. Rapson credits Rey and Urban Street Angels with saving her life.
“If they weren’t there to pick me up when I was down, I don’t know what would have happened,” she said.
Urban Street Angels held its grand opening ceremony on Jan. 18, although they have actually been in operation since last year. City officials and sponsors were treated to a tour of the facility. Rapson opened the event with a stunningly stellar a capella version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Councilman Chris Ward along with Father Joe’s President and CEO Deacon Jim Vargas said a few words, while BIA Cares and the Cushman Foundation presented sizable donations. As the event wound down, officials from several communities such as El Cajon and Vista were already pitching Lovett to expand Urban Street Angels to serve in their areas. Lovett was enthusiastic about the concept.
“We need to do it! We need to do it!” he repeatedly emphasized in his Southern drawl.
Support 8 West and the Urban Street Angels by purchasing handcrafted premium bath, shower and spa products at 8west.org.
—Vince Meehan can be reached at email@example.com.