An outreach worker wearing a red vest crouches down in front of a tent.
Searchlight Society's "HOME Team," or Homeless Outreach Management and Engagement Team provides outreach and case management to individuals experiencing homelessness. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Martinez.

Daniel Herrera and Cassandra Martinez were driving through Downtown Los Angeles one day when they were struck by the amount of trash on the street.

Surprised that the city hadn’t done anything about it, the couple decided to take matters into their own hands.

After their first four-hour cleanup, the effort extended into multiple cleanup operations throughout Los Angeles before the two ended up moving to North Long Beach where they decided to take their initiative, now the nonprofit organization, Searchlight Society, to their new neighborhood.

“I like to say it came out of the idea of like, ‘If not us, then who?’ And just the mentality that, hey, anyone can do it, you just got to put the work in for it,” said Herrera.

At the core of Searchlight Society is its homeless outreach team, which emphasizes establishing multiple points of contact, building up a rapport, and assigning a case manager—all while out in the field, Herrera said.

Being able to meet people where they are, rather than requiring them to come to an office or other set location is extremely important to the organization, explained Herrera. Searchlight Society utilizes an outreach vehicle equipped with a computer, iPad, a 5G hotspot and a printer, allowing it to provide all of its services without an actual office visit.

While anyone in any agency is able to call themselves an “outreach worker,” Searchlight Society aims to set a standard, said Herrera, and all of the nonprofit’s case managers go through 40 hours of general outreach training, along with 40 hours of specialized training, which includes harm reduction, Narcan use, ACEs (adverse childhood effects) and motivational interviewing.

From there, there are two days, or 16 hours, of evaluated work out in the field before moving into a probationary period as a secondary worker, which focuses more on data entry and gaining experience while working alongside the lead case manager, usually the driver.

The homeless outreach team was piloted in Victorville before beginning its work in Long Beach in 2020.

“To be transparent and honest, impacting Long Beach is quite difficult,” Herrera said. “We conduct outreach, we make the connections, we build that rapport, but due to the continued sweeps in Long Beach, it’s hard to keep in track with our clients … We’re playing a game of cat and mouse.”

Two people wear red vests that say "Homeless Outreach," walk down a dirt road surrounded by trees.
The Searchlight Society is piloting its “REACH Team,” which incorporates its homeless outreach services will incorporating infield health services, by working with registered nurses and psychiatrists. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Martinez.

Currently, the organization focuses on City Council Districts 1 and 9, which are highly impacted by homelessness, and Searchlight Society has connected with the Long Beach Police Department’s quality of life team, with hopes of potentially setting up a ride-along as well as data sharing.

“We can say, ‘Hey, look, these are the resources we’re offering for this individual, so if you come in contact with them, please let us know,’” Herrera said. “We’re hoping that will assist us with, you know, keeping in contact with our clients, and keeping up-to-date information.”

Despite the challenges of providing services in Long Beach, Herrera is hopeful that by declaring a state of emergency for homelessness, the city will expedite service delivery and lower any bureaucratic hurdles.

But as for whether it makes an impact in the community or not, it ultimately comes down to accountability for the agencies providing services, and ensuring that resources are being properly utilized, Herrera said.

As for Herrera’s vision for Searchlight Society’s work in Long Beach, the organization is currency piloting a new team, the REACH Team, which stands for “rapid engagement and community health,” which is absorbing its homeless outreach team—providing the same services while adding a community health component that includes working with different health agencies to provide in-field health services.

“We’re kind of going backwards of ‘housing first,’ because obviously housing first says, ‘Take them in as they are, and then provide service,’ but our issue is, we don’t have anywhere to place them,” Herrera said. “We’re trying to go the opposite direction, with the ultimate goal of getting them housed, but it’s like, we want to make sure we’re providing you at least some type of service while we’re waiting for you to get housed.”

While Searchlight Society does not offer clothing or supplies such as tents, the organization is also restarting its food recovery programs, which provide healthy food nearing the end of its shelf life.

“Everyone deserves housing, but everyone also deserves something to eat,” Herrera said. “And my whole thing is, I can’t give you a house right now … But what I can do, I can provide you something to eat.”

The ultimate goal in Long Beach is to grow its volunteer and employee base—while services are currently offered twice a week in Long Beach, Herrera hopes that will grow to a daily effort.

“Having an organization like this is so necessary because we need to have a consistent team in Long Beach that does homeless outreach,” Herrera said. “That is the first step with connecting to an individual experiencing homelessness. So it’s a simple fact that by providing a consistent homeless outreach team that’s dedicated for each district, it’s a familiar face, it’s a person who can create that rapport, it’s not us having to start over. It will give us the opportunity to work with that individual longer, and get them housed ultimately.”

To get involved, email Searchlight Society at [email protected], with “Homeless outreach,” or “Volunteer in Long Beach,” in the subject line. All training and county and state certifications will be provided to volunteers.