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Meet Darci Niva

Today we’d like to introduce you to Darci Niva.

Hi Darci, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself
I have worked much of my career, over 25 years, in homeless services. I originally started an art group for homeless artists in Tempe, Arizona where my family and I lived.

I quickly became aware of how many people had complex needs that had to be addressed in order for them to get back on their feet. Social service agencies are difficult to navigate for anyone who doesn’t work in the industry and are often understaffed.

I had personally witnessed the struggle that many people who have mental health issues, substance use disorders, a criminal record, etc. faced and they simply couldn’t get back on their feet. There are programs that work well for the many people who just had an unfortunate situation that lead to temporary homelessness- the social safety net. They generally have the support of family and friends and get on their feet in a short period of time. But those that have complex issues need intense help and turn to agencies that are often underfunded and understaffed.

It is a dilemma that exists today. I went to work for the City of Tempe and helped to start a program where faith organizations of all faiths agreed to use their buildings as a shelter for one night a week or one night a month, whatever they could do. Others that didn’t have the space for a shelter would bring a meal. When they shared the work it was far less daunting.

That program, Interfaith Homeless Emergency Lodging Program (IHELP), still exists successfully today. Working collaboratively is what works in this field and that experience is what I brought with me when we moved to Los Angeles to be close to our son in Venice. I was hired for the position of the Executive Director of the Westside Coalition almost 9 years ago.

At that time there were 30 members of the coalition (social service agencies, governmental agencies, faith, and community organizations), now there are 70 members all working collaboratively on addressing homelessness and poverty.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall, and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I have the incredible privilege of working with some of the most remarkable people and organizations that I have ever met. I truly do marvel at the selfless work that is done every day by people who are, in my opinion, heroes in our community.

Our biggest struggle is that we are now experiencing the results of decades of mistakes. Mistakes such as cities opting to NOT build the number of affordable housing units required by law, but choosing to pay a fine instead. Mistakes such as not providing the needed mental health services or substance abuse services. Mistakes such as criminalizing homelessness and on and on.

As we work together we continue to uncover better ways of helping people in need. We use research and science to change the way we engage with people who are suffering such as through the Housing First model, the Coordinated Entry System, etc.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
The staff members from our member agencies that work directly with those experiencing homelessness are called frontline staff or direct service staff. These caseworkers, outreach workers, etc. are trained through their agencies in trauma-informed care, in the context of their clients experiencing trauma so that they can better serve their clients. But what we began to see is that these staff members were burning out at an unusually high rate.

They were experiencing compassion fatigue and secondary trauma (a client’s trauma they take home with them) because they work in an industry that is extremely difficult. It is difficult because of mental illness, substance use disorders, and perhaps more so because of the lack of housing resources to truly help all of their clients. When a staff member burns out, it affects the client, the agency, and the community.

The client can see when their caseworker is experiencing compassion fatigue. The agency is affected because when a staff member burns out and quits, the agency has to hire and train a new staff member, prolonging the time it takes for the client to get back on their feet, and the community begins to get frustrated because they feel like things are simply moving too slow.

So we started to provide free trauma-informed care training for staff members, to focus on the mental health wellness of our collective staff members. This training focuses on education from experts in the field of mental health, various self-care modalities, and enhanced networking. In the past year, we had over 1100 registrations showing us that this truly is a necessary focus.

The success of this program surprised us and we feel as though we have identified a true “gap in services” and it is one that we are uniquely positioned to address.

What do you think about luck?
I think that landing the job that I did, to lead the Westside Coalition was extremely good luck. I also think that the timing of moving to Los Angeles when we did was good luck.

It was at a time that homeless services in LA were committed to forming a truly collaborative homeless services system, the Coordinated Entry System. It has transformed the way that people are served and the way that we track clients and their progress in getting back on their feet.

The pandemic has been a terrible thing to live through and yet some of the virtual services that we were forced to use will definitely last beyond the pandemic. That is good news for agencies from the perspective of utilizing efficiency in how their staff utilizes their time.

It really depends on how you look at anything. There will likely be good and bad in most things we experience. I prefer to put my focus on the good.

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