City HeART reaches homeless community with storytelling and family-style support

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When Paige Pelonis graduated from Cal State Long Beach in 2015 with a degree in journalism, she found it difficult to separate herself from the issues she wrote about.

Particularly when it came to topics such as homelessness and mental health, “It became really tough for me not to also get really involved in serving those community needs,” Pelonis said.

Along with a group of artists, in 2016 City HeART was created to bridge storytelling and social services, with the intent of raising awareness of community issues while giving back, Pelonis said.

City HeART quickly became the organization that said yes to everything, with a primary focus on outreach for those experiencing homelessness, said Pelonis. Its offerings rapidly expanded, from doing art workshops with the substance abuse recovery program Safe Refuge, to providing food, clothing, hygiene items and more.

“But I love that about us, I love that our our instinct is to say, yes, we want to want to be the ones that people come to when they need something,” said Pelonis. “If my sister calls me in the dead of night and needs something, she’s my sister, I’m gonna pick up the phone, I’m gonna be there, and that’s who we are, and that’s what we pride ourselves on being, not as experts in any field, but just as people who really care.”

However, by the end of 2017, it was exhausting keeping up with all the donations and distributions, said Pelonis.

“We were doing a lot of art workshops, but the storytelling component of our mission was really suffering,” said Pelonis. “It was getting harder and harder to kind of envision how all of these different programs and services fit together.”

With the establishment of its space at the Century Villages of Cabrillo, a supportive housing community that is also home to 11 on-site partners, in 2019, the resources side of the organization continued to blossom, establishing a resource center that functioned by referral from case managers.

Not only was the space a hub for classes and support groups, as well as for volunteers to assist guests with each step toward establishing housing, but it became a space for connection and socializing, said Pelonis.

“The bigger we get as a group, and the more we’re able to kind of see that model work, where we’re just sort of a family or friends along for the ride, and helping someone get to their appointments or going with them to their appointments,” said Pelonis.

Through the leadership of board member and veteran John Oppenheim, the City HeART Veterans Council became officially part of the organization in January 2021, made up of veterans who lived at the Villages with the intent to provide peer support and support groups in a safe environment, explained Pelonis.

It is currently one of four programs offered by City HeART, narrowed down from six, said Pelonis.

Throughout its growth and perseverance through the pandemic, which temporarily eliminated all of the organization’s volunteers, Pelonis was overworked and overstressed by the end of last year, she said.

Between juggling City HeART, the organization she ran since 2016, plus her full-time job at the Villages of Cabrillo, as well as her commitments to the Long Beach Homeless Coalition and the LA County Commission for public social services, she knew something had to go.

For Pelonis, the choice was between her full-time commitments: her job or City HeART.

“Instinctively, I was like, well, I’m not going to quit my paying job, that would be ridiculous,” she said.

Throughout January and February, as Pelonis tried to come to terms with the possibility of letting go of City HeART, she came to recognize that that wasn’t the decision she wanted, she said.

“I just knew there was no way I was gonna be able to do it, it was going to be too much of a loss, it would be too much grief for me to have to work through,” Pelonis said.

On March 16, Pelonis left her job, and the next day, she took on the role of City HeART’s executive director.

Since then, not only has the volunteer base grown, but 12 people have been connected to some sort of housing, she said.

And in April, City HeART was able to return to its storytelling roots, with the release of its first magazine, “Art from Ashes.”

It was only initially intended to be an annual magazine, but after its positive reception, its next issue will be released in the fall, with online content in the meantime, said Pelonis.

Apart from one section of the magazine introducing the Veterans Council, every other story in the magazine is either about people who are championing incredible causes, or have experienced the key issues they are now advocating for, said Pelonis.

“The volunteers coming in to do the services are also telling the stories of the people that they’re working with, and working with them to empower them to tell their own stories more often than not, and that’s where a lot of the content from the magazine is going to be coming from,” said Pelonis.

“Art from Ashes” shares stories of resilience and of overcoming obstacles, with hopes of both empowering and challenging readers to contribute to the causes that make these stories possible, said Pelonis.

“There’s also some really incredible artwork and poetry about trauma and mental health (that’s) just intimately connected to the work that we’re doing today,” said Pelonis. “The storytelling, for us, is not about telling our own story, it’s really about going out and telling stories about impact.”

Impact is at the core of City HeART’s mission, whether it’s through storytelling, through providing direct aid, or walking alongside someone on their journey towards securing housing, Pelonis said.

And in the not-too-distant future, Pelonis hopes to bring locations to North Long Beach and Downtown as well.

“If we were to have not too far into the future, two more access points that feel like home for folks who don’t have a home, and can have that home while they’re working on moving through their housing journey, that would be my my perfect vision, my ideal world,” she said.

With the help of partnerships including Cal State Long Beach’s nursing program as well as AKUA Long Beach, as well its dedicated team of volunteers, Pelonis is confident that her dream will become reality.

“The only way we keep moving forward is the really incredible people who give so much time and so much energy, and they’re not doing it because they’re punching a clock,” said Pelonis. “But the more I just think about it, wow, like this place is so thriving, because so many people want it to.”

Contribute to City HeART. To get involved, email [email protected]

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