La Habra efforts to help homeless neighbors finds success with ‘kinder, gentler’ approach


*Editor’s Note: This story originally published in the Fall edition of the quarterly La Habra Life newsletter. 

While getting acquainted with La Habra’s homeless neighbors, new Community Services Outreach Coordinators Paul Mahoney and David Aguirre have learned its best not to show up empty handed.

The simple act of giving someone a sandwich can open the lines of communication.

“If me giving someone a sandwich gives them hope, I’ll bring one to them every day until we can do something for them,” Mahoney said. “This role is all about connecting to residents, and when I got here, I didn’t know a soul. But we started with a little sandwich and conversation and now they ask us when we are coming for a visit.”

Mahoney began working for the City in May, and Aguirre followed in June July. Their roles as Community Services Outreach Coordinators are part of a program initiated by the City to work hands-on with the homeless community and get them connected to resources – from shelter to mental health providers, clothing, and job openings.

“We are trying to address the needs of residents and businesses to improve the quality of life in the community,” said Kimberly Powell Albarian, La Habra Community Services Manager. “We wanted to approach a serious and sensitive issue in a more compassionate way that will build trust among the homeless population.”

The Point-in-Time (PIT) annual census and survey conducted by the County helped the City identify its sheltered and unsheltered homeless population. La Habra hovers around about 45 homeless residents, Albarian said.

“We want to get help for these individuals and not push the problem to another provider,” she said. “We sought to hire experienced individuals who had compassion, had case management experience, knowledge of County and community resources, social work with a high risk population, and who had collaborated directly with the homeless community before.”

Mahoney has 12 years of experience working with the homeless in Downtown Los Angeles, with those who live along the Santa Ana Riverbed, and with launching a new shelter in Costa Mesa. Aguirre, a La Habra resident, has a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Azusa Pacific University, and began his career with the homeless collaborative City Net.

“I am really excited to get in and serve the community I live in,” Aguirre said. “I have a lot of direct experience working with individuals, trying to get people into housing, and being a psychotherapist while doing it.”

La Habra’s City Council and City Manager worked in partnership with the Community Services team to create this program with federal funding provided through the Community Development Block Grant program.

“We are able to address a community need,” Albarian said. “We feel really fortunate to have this opportunity to help make a difference.”

The La Habra Police Department and City of La Habra were key partners in forming the North Orange County Public Safety Collaborative in 2017. The Collaborative includes cities, police departments, and community-based organizations (CBOs) that coordinate and regionalize services in the areas of homelessness, youth violence prevention, and intervention; and enhance post-incarceration re-entry support.

The Collaborative’s cities and public safety officials were able to develop effective partnerships with more than 50 CBOs, working together on strategy and sharing resources.

It was through its partnership with the Collaborative, La Habra was able to learn what works for its residents and they began to pivot to a “kinder, gentler” model for outreach.

Mahoney and Aguirre work out of the La Habra Community Center and hold office hours at the La Habra Community Collaborative, new office space, also known as the La Habra Hillcrest Health & Wellness Center on Hillcrest Street. , The site offers resources that include a diaper bank, hygiene kits, a wellness center, a clothing store, social services support and a daily general store supplied with foods from Sam’s Club, Sprouts, Trader Joe’s, Cost Co. and a number of other La Habra businesses.

The community hub on Hillcrest Street is a village of sorts led by Executive Director Scott Miller, who has been working in La Habra for the last eight years. Residents begin to arrive around 8 a.m. and add their names to the list for shopping or for speaking with someone about help they need. Shopping carts are parked outside of the General Market, which opens at 11 a.m. and remains open for three hours.

Miller works closely with Mahoney and Aguirre, who are at the Collaborative every day picking up hygiene kits, socks, waters, and sandwiches from the General Market and asking him about resources for homeless residents they meet while answering calls.

It’s a community partnership they all appreciate.

“Now we have everything under one umbrella, we’ve got all of our resources … right here,” Miller said. “Having these guys on board really puts this all together. It’s a true collaboration.”