An advocate for those who can’t shelter-in-place

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Carol Eastman in a social worker for Friendship Shelter. Photo by Barbara McMurray

By Barbara McMurray, Special to the Independent

“Hi, I’m Carol. I’m a social worker. How are you doing today?”

The woman sitting on the curb wears tattered socks and soiled clothing. She gazes into the distance and seems not to hear Carol Eastman’s query.

In a clear, calm voice, Eastman offers her a safe place to sleep, a meal, and shoes as she gently attempts to piece together where the homeless woman came from and how to assist her.

“No, I’m good.”

It’s another workday on Laguna’s streets for Eastman, an outreach social worker for nonprofit Friendship Shelter.

“With beaches and parks partially shut down due to the health crisis, the ASL on lockdown serving only enrollees, and quieter streets, homeless people are more visible,” she said.

An emergency statewide program, Project Roomkey, added three temporary shelter options in Orange County.

Eastman is concerned about what happens next.

“You can’t shelter in place when you have no home,” she said. “We worked very hard to get folks indoors during the crisis. It’s far easier to help people when you have them sheltered. I sincerely hope there’s a countywide plan to access funding and keep them housed.” 

Eastman approaches homeless individuals using her friendly, nonjudgmental manner to build relationships in an effort to connect them with services or benefits and reunite them with family members. She works alongside the Laguna Beach Police Department’s two community outreach officers, Mission Hospital, Orange County service agencies, and a handful of local professionals who understand the difficulty of her task.

“I advocate for people, play detective, interview family members, piece together a person’s story so I can build a case for getting them assistance, appropriate shelter, and, hopefully, housing. Navigating the system is a daunting process, even more so if you have mental health issues,” Eastman said.

On her partnership with Community Outreach Officers Brian Griep and Zach Martinez, she said, “I know Zach’s and Brian’s strengths and they know mine. I can do more traditional social work than the police. It’s a unique team approach.”

For example, a man had been sleeping in a public parking lot nightly, to the trepidation of nearby tenants. Working together, Eastman and Griep reconnected him with his family, ending a seven-year estrangement.

“My car looks like a thrift store,” she laughed.

The trunk is loaded with neatly labeled bags containing fresh socks, clothing, nutritious snacks, and hygiene supplies.

Eastman feels the work she does is a significant benefit to the community, emphasizing that her employer, Friendship Shelter, goes well beyond the requirements of its city contract. Her part-time hourly salary is paid for not by city tax dollars, but through state funding that comes via the county.

Eastman first approached Friendship Shelter as a volunteer with a UC Berkeley master’s degree in social work. With her sharp eye dialed for people many others pretend not to see, Eastman has become a familiar figure downtown.

“I’ll pop down on a Saturday or Sunday as needed. I’m always on call. All the homeless folks know me,” she remarked. “I’m a whatever-it-takes person.”

Friendship Shelter will hold a Virtual Town Hall meeting at 4:30 p.m. on June 1 on Zoom and Facebook Live for residents to learn more and have their questions answered. Visit friendshipshelter.org for details. 

Barbara is a Laguna Beach resident of 29 years, writer, and public relations and marketing professional. She currently serves on the Friendship Shelter’s board of directors. Find her at mcmurraymarketing.com.

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