Cassandra Martinez and Daniel Herrera met as Disneyland employees while both were still in school. As cast members, they said they went out of their way to be compassionate and to make sure people had memorable experiences.
As the co-founders of the nonprofit Searchlight Society, Martinez and Herrera are spreading messages of hope and compassion to those without homes. They say it is their belief that a single action can make a difference in the community and that collective action can greatly impact the world.
The name Searchlight Society surfaced because they wanted to help form a community that illuminates and shines a light on the problems associated with experiencing homelessness, Martinez said.
“Each and every person we come into contact with deserves to have their story heard, their struggles understood, and their goals implemented,” she said.
After years of doing volunteer work in locations from Victorville to downtown Los Angeles, Searchlight Society is setting its sights on an area much closer to where they live: North Long Beach.
The couple are bringing their new Homeless Outreach Management and Engagement (HOME) unit to their neighborhood. The HOME team works out of a converted, retired Long Beach Fire Department ambulance equipped with 4G LTE and 5G capabilities and can connect individuals with partnering medical clinics to provide onsite medical consultations. The organization specializes in outreach services, case management and crisis support calls. They use a mental health approach to give individualized care to reduce the chance that people will fall back into street-level homelessness.
“Too often we come in contact with individuals who begin the first steps of getting help only to be let down due to a case manager not following through,” Herrera said. “This is absolutely detrimental and can unwind all the efforts the outreach specialists established.”
Neither person is originally from Long Beach, but Martinez received her master’s degree in Social Work from Long Beach State while Herrera is from Diamond Bar.
“CSULB sold me on this area,” Martinez said. “I did my master’s thesis on North Long Beach. I just love the area, the culture, the community. It just took me.”
Social work runs in Martinez’s family; her mother worked in foster care.
“Living in L.A., it’s hard to hide yourself from things that are going on,” Martinez said. “One of the larger reasons we started Searchlight was that I was working for a regional (social work) center and Daniel was working with individuals with disabilities. When we would go to L.A., we would see certain things like loads of trash and illegal dumping and find needles and feces and things so unsanitary, yet right across the street was a beautiful park and $2,000-a-month apartments and we wondered why things weren’t being done.”
Martinez said she saw people living in tents and not getting the same services as other people. So the duo started picking up the garbage.
“For me, the big thing was ‘let’s help these guys out,’” she said. “These people aren’t living in a sanitary environment, so Daniel and I would clean it up. And then the people living in tents were so helpful. They would help us clean up. They told us they weren’t getting garbage cans or sanitary service. We built rapport, got their names, got their stories and they started to trust us. We said, ‘you know what? We can do this. We can help them.’ And that was the start of it.”
Since their first “Operation Clean Street,” the pair have led more than 20 successful homeless encampment clean-up events.
Herrera said it made sense to start their HOME project in North Long Beach because a new homeless shelter is being established on a 3-acre lot at 6841 Atlantic Ave. It is expected to provide 125 beds with separate quarters for men, women, families and LGBTQ individuals. “We will try to start a rapport with those individuals and get them to that next level of care,” he said. “We’ve already gone out to start collecting data. We use a mapping system and try to make contact with as many homeless people as possible. For example, we already know of four individuals who are always in the same location on Artesia Boulevard.”
Herrera said he and Martinez have been driving the streets twice to three times a week to do some therapeutic rapport. They are also referring people to organizations, but because of the pandemic, there aren’t enough shelters or beds to accommodate everyone.
Searchlight Society is also developing an app so people can get in touch with them, much like the Go Long Beach app.
“We thought this would be a fantastic way to give back to our community,” Herrera said. “We want to help the city with its backlog of cases and allow the emergency service people do what they are really needed to do.”
Searchlight Society is looking for volunteers to help in North Long Beach. Email email@example.com for more information.