MAKING A DIFFERENCE
By Darlene Donloe
SOFESA, a nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless and low-income families in Southern California, believes that in order to solve the big problem of homelessness, officials need to think small.
Jess Echeverry, the founder, and director of the organization believes it wholeheartedly. Knowing firsthand what it means to be homeless, underage and pregnant, she explained why.
“When working in homeless services, things have gotten too big,” Echeverry said. “All of the homeless are going through one single pipeline.
You need to think about relationships and think at grassroots levels when dealing with the homeless. When you go to the grocery store and see a homeless person and say hello and ask their name or introduce yourself, that’s the small.”
Echeverry said all homeless people have a name and should be treated as such.
“The small is when you know their name,” she said. “It’s a small thing to introduce yourself or ask someone their name. Big is recognizing a homeless organization and then volunteering. That’s good, but…. it’s about relationships. Remember, there is always a story behind someone becoming homeless.”
Echeverry, a speaker, author, and women and family advocate, said she’s never seen homelessness as bad as it is in Los Angeles right now.
“Never seen it like this,” she said. “It’s because they tried to do a coordinated entry system. You make people all funnel to the same place. You’re pulling them out of their communities.”
Echeverry knows all too well what it’s like to be homeless. The Ft. Lauderdale native was homeless for four years. She describes her childhood as “transient.”
Echeverry said she was a victim of “child molestation” and was “raped at 12.”
That’s when she says she began to rebel.
“No one was paying attention,” Echeverry said. “My parents had married and divorced three times. It all created brokenness. By 14, I was running away from home. By 16, I was living with my grandparents and my boyfriend. I got pregnant.
My grandparents got upset and said I couldn’t stay there. My family and stepfather said I couldn’t come there. I had to get rid of the child in order to come home.”
Echeverry said she was “scared and tried to have an abortion three times, but couldn’t.”
She found herself in a crack and prostitution house. Eventually, her mother found her a Christian home for unwed mothers. There, Echeverry was told she’d have to give up her baby for adoption.
Her boyfriend’s family stepped in and took the baby, but wouldn’t allow her to move in. She found herself sleeping on a beach. She dug through the trash at McDonald’s because she was hungry.
Finally, some adults took her under their wing. She was in and out of the system and shelters for four years. Then her life changed. She found a boyfriend who treated her with respect.
Echeverry said she shares her story to inspire others.
“When I moved to California with my husband in 1999, I saw the homeless and wanted to let them know that I understand,” Echeverry said. “I wanted to show them some dignity. That small gesture helps them to feel better. When someone knows your name when they come to help you, that’s a nice gesture.”
Before SOFESA took form, Echeverry started handing out toiletries and socks to the homeless in Santa Monica. She mentioned what she was doing to friends, who decided to help.
“We would drive by the park in Santa Monica at Lincoln and 12th Street and we would give them socks and toiletries,” she said. “My heart was getting pulled. They would fight each other for the socks and toiletries. I started to engage with them. I’d sit down and talk.”
Echeverry and her friends continued to help the homeless for about six years. The friends called themselves the Sore Feet Saviors. That’s where the name of the organization comes from. They took the first two letters of each word in Sore Feet Saviors and called it SOFESA.
“When we became a nonprofit, the board didn’t want a long name like Sore Feet Saviors. They wanted to shorten the name to make it easier to say. And, for the Hispanic community, it can be said in English and Spanish.”
Once SOFESA became an official nonprofit, its programming included an outreach program which answers the call of families in immediate emergency need of shelter, food, personal necessities, and friendship.
To participate in the Outreach Program, a woman has to be homeless and, or pregnant. SOFESA offers three or four nights in a hotel, groceries and will even pay a cell phone bill.
Due to COVID-19, SOFESA had to shut down its emergency outreach program for the time being. Still the organization engages in research, meetings, seminars, education and anything else needed to create a modern response and model of care addressing the problem of homelessness that the organization sees today.
Additional programming on hold includes field trips. The organization’s goal is to introduce scenarios and opportunities to SOFESA kids to concentrate on their positive mental and physical well being, by learning about new things and experiences.
The organization also hosts various parties and events. There is also a service program that provides volunteer opportunities.
Each year SOFESA hosts a Christmas of Hope Celebration, an Easter party, and a back-to-school barbecue. One year a car was donated to the organization, and was promptly given to a family in need.
The people who come to SOFESA are usually between the ages of 20-40, they are mostly women, although they have had three fathers come for help. The clientele is predominantly Hispanic and African American.
“When I first meet a homeless person, they lie,” Echeverry said. “They don’t tell the truth. It takes months for them to feel comfortable and trust us.”
Echeverry said the organization’s families stay with them long term.
“This is the one relationship that is always going to be here for you,” she said. “You can call anytime, no matter what you’ve done.”
SOFESA receives no government funding and survives through private donations. Each outreach project, per person, costs approximately $600-$700 spread over four days, which can include housing, food, transportation, a cell phone bill and more.
“Now it takes much more to place a family because of what’s currently happening in L.A.,” Echeverry said. “There are no rooms at crisis centers.”
Echeverry, a mother of five and a grandmother of one, considers herself “blessed.”
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” she said. “I’m where I’m supposed to be so I can help others to find where they are supposed to be. For the first portion of my life, I hated the people who abused and raped me.
“I became a Christian in 2008,” she added. “That’s when I learned about forgiveness and the dignity of everybody. That realization is what I’m sharing with people. This person has value. You have to wonder how much value has been depleted from some of the homeless. I want to help them get it back.”
Asked what she personally gets out of helping people, Echeverry said no one had ever asked her that question before.
“I can tell you, it heals my wounds I carry from my own experiences,” she said. “It helps me. I was enormously thankful for having met my husband. It was a healthy relationship. We all need that one healthy relationship.”
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.