CALIFORNIA

New, bigger shelter plans warm welcome for homeless San Fernando Valley families

Home Again in Northridge has triple the capacity of N. Hollywood homeless shelter that burned down last year

A year after its North Hollywood homeless shelter burned to the ground, the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission is opening a new 90-bed family shelter in Northridge.

The Canby Avenue facility, called Home Again, has triple the capacity of the one that burned and will provide private family bedrooms, a computer center, a common dining room and classrooms for the mission's life skills programs. Families are expected to begin moving in next month.

Formerly a shuttered private school, the new shelter sits on a tree-lined street surrounded by apartment buildings. Residents pass flower beds and a playground before entering a living room with plush armchairs and board games. It's meant to feel like a home, not a shelter, said Wade Trimmer, the mission's director.

"Everything we do runs through the lens of, 'Does it enhance dignity?'" Trimmer said. "Immediately, they feel the streets are behind them."

The rescue mission's former family shelter on Saticoy Street in North Hollywood was a total loss after the May 2014 blaze. The overnight fire started at an adjacent wood pallet warehouse and spread to the shelter, where more than two dozen people were staying. Residents fled in their pajamas.

Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey said this week that the fire remained under investigation and that the cause was undetermined. The fire also destroyed the mission's clothing and food warehouse, as well as portable showers and vehicles used to deliver meals.

The new $6-million Northridge facility — for which money is still being raised — had been in the works before the fire accelerated the need for it, Trimmer said.

Family homelessness is on the rise in the Valley, he said, and the North Hollywood shelter usually had a waiting list of 45 to 60 families. For years, most of the people who have stayed at the mission's shelter — Trimmer calls them guests — have been children.

"Homelessness is starting to look more and more like a family portrait" as affordable housing becomes more scarce, Trimmer said. The Valley, he said, has a higher concentration of homeless families than other parts of the city, and they often are hidden, sleeping in cars and parks.

Trimmer said it's common for homeless children to try to do their homework in fast-food restaurants, where they also bathe in the bathroom sink and dry off with paper towels. It was with that scenario in mind that he requested that all of the new shelter's restrooms have full bathtubs.

Georgina Rodriguez, a curly-haired 15-year-old, lives with her parents and two sisters in the mission's temporary shelter — a stopgap before the new one opens. The family, which lived for a time in the back of a U-Haul truck after losing their home, was present the night of the fire and ran from the flames.

Georgina has been helping shelter volunteers unpack boxes and set up furniture. She plans to volunteer a lot, greeting new families to make them feel as welcome as people made her feel.

"It's like a relief here," she said, sitting in the new shelter's front room. "We'd never been in a shelter before. I was really scared. But I see all the volunteers who cared and do so much for us, and I'm like, I want to be like that."

On Wednesday, Mirna Navarro, 36, visited the new facility with her three young children. She became teary-eyed looking at the building.

Navarro was eight months pregnant when she and her two sons went to the North Hollywood shelter in 2012. Her husband had been deported to Mexico, and after struggling to find a job, she lost her home. At first she was too embarrassed to go to a shelter, but the family became desperate.

"When they hear the word 'homeless,' people think something's wrong with you," Navarro said. "But I try to tell people to not be afraid. A shelter's not as bad as you think."

Now Navarro works in a fast-food restaurant and studies sign language. She has landed a Panorama City apartment, but was living at the North Hollywood shelter when she gave birth.

As her now 2-year-old daughter, Camila, peered around the new shelter's living room, Navarro gave her a hug.

Her hope, she said, is that the families who stay here will not be ashamed of their situation. And that they'll find joy.

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Twitter: @haileybranson

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