Holly Wertman Pilots Recently Launched Downtown Women’s Center Program as a Problem Solving Specialist
By SARAH SHMERLING | Editor-in-Chief
Growing up in Pacific Palisades, Holly Wertman learned at a young age the value of giving back and serving her community—her dad ran Chrysalis and her mom raised millions writing grants for different nonprofits around Los Angeles.
“I think because of my parents being who they are and doing the work that they do, from such a young age, I had a very intense sense of social responsibility and just a knowledge that whatever work I do in some way needs to be serving communities,” Wertman explained to the Palisadian-Post. “Then I’ve tried to gravitate toward communities that I have things in common with, like female-centric programs or LGBT communities.”
After attending Berkeley and spending a couple of years around the world doing international humanitarian aid work, Wertman is back home in LA, working as a problem solving specialist for the Downtown Women’s Center—which, due to the pandemic, means she is working remotely out of her childhood bedroom in the Alphabet Streets.
Problem solving is a new program that, since the start of this year, Wertman has been helping pilot for the center.
“Basically what problem solving does is it’s trying to reach the people who are kind of always teetering on the edge of homelessness, which is a huge population in LA,” Wertman explained. “I think it’s around 600,000 people in Los Angeles are spending more than 90% of their income on housing, meaning that if they run into any kind of problem—even if it’s a leak that they need to fix in their house or a hospital bill, anything—you can start falling into a situation that’s really hard to get yourself out of.”
Through problem solving, the center is able to assist recipients with a single cost that will fix their homelessness or keep them from falling into it—whether it be purchasing a plane ticket to get a woman out of a domestic violence situation, which is something Wertman has helped coordinate, to covering a security deposit.
The program was launched in mid-2019 and reached the end of its budget within four months, so now it has been sustained on individual donor funds from those who have heard about the program and thought it was worthwhile.
One woman committed to $2,500 per month for one year, hoping that her contribution would help alleviate case manager burnout.
“It was the sweetest thing in the world,” Wertman said. “She came in and really connected to the problem solving program … and was even talking to me about the idea that problem solving was great because it gave the case mangers the ability to say yes and to have funds that helped people.”
Wertman shared a story about a woman she was able to help that she said shocked her grandmother: This person had been living in her car in Santa Monica for two years. Even though she was able to get and sustain a new job, the only thing that was keeping her out of a home was a $1,200 security deposit.
“To think that there’s someone in Santa Monica who’s going to work every single day, who’s making money, who is contributing back to her community and everything but just hasn’t been able to put together the money for a security deposit because of all of the setbacks and all the costs associated with homelessness,” Wertman said. “It was really just as simple as providing the money, providing the $1,200 that covered her security deposit, and she’s one of those clients where I’m very confident that she’s going to remain in housing for good.”
Wertman explained that from a policy perspective, providing this funding could save the city thousands of dollars in service costs each year.
“Hearing stories like this, seeing people like that—it’s a good reminder that people who are unhoused are not necessarily what the media has always portrayed them to be,” Wertman shared. “I feel like we’ve been conditioned from a young age to dehumanize people who don’t have homes and especially during this pandemic, during the homelessness rise after the eviction moratorium is lifted, I think programs like this are going to be extra necessary in order to catch all of the people.”
Since the pandemic began, Downtown Women’s Center has had to shift some of its programming, serving 800 meals per day.
“Even though a lot of our services were taken offline and offsite, we’ve served more meals in 2020 already than we did in all of 2019 and we’re only halfway through the year,” Wertman said.
Wertman acknowledged that being interviewed during a period of time where Black Lives Matter is a focus of conversation, she wanted to note how racialized homelessness is.
“I think that the work being done to alleviate homelessness and to increase resources for people who are unhoused is inherently racial justice work and in a way that people can get connected to it,” she shared. “I think it’s an easy entry point for people to look at the different places that are doing homelessness work and kind of try to plug in there as they’re learning about the city’s history and the United States’ systematic racism —I know a lot of people are doing a lot of learning right and I think that’s really beautiful.”
And, she said that when people are ready to serve the community, the Downtown Women’s Center is a great place to start.
“DWC accepts donations and that money can go straight toward problem solving if this is something that people are interested in donating to and it’s, right now, the most flexible stream of funding that we have that can go toward any cost that’s keeping people from stabilizing their housing,” Wertman said. “I think it’s a worthwhile thing to donate to.”
For more information or to donate funds, visit downtownwomenscenter.org.
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