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Beyond Shelter--Hope

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

No one knows exactly how many men, women and children are homeless in the County of Los Angeles, but all the public agencies concerned with the care of people without a decent place to live are aware that the situation is desperate.

These agencies know for certain that there is a huge gap between the housing needs of the homeless and the number of homes and shelters actually being planned or built.

Despite repeated calls for more affordable housing by many officials and politicians, from Mayor Tom Bradley on down, few programs are under way. The city and county bureaucracies seem tangled in red tape and hampered by lack of funds, while the private sector has seldom found an effective way to go it alone.

One of the very few private nonprofit organizations that have actually created new housing for the homeless is the Los Angeles Family Housing Corp.

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Since its founding in 1983, LAFHC has built or renovated accommodations for more than 500 homeless people in the less advantaged sections of the city, from Boyle Heights to South Central and North Hollywood. It is, currently, the only nonprofit group creating housing for homeless families in the entire San Fernando Valley.

LAFHC’s latest and most ambitious achievement is the new $1.2 million Trudy and Norman Louis Valley Shelter on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. The shelter is named for the benefactors whose foundation contributed a major portion of the funds.

Designated an “emergency shelter” under city housing codes, the Valley Shelter offers first-stage accommodations for homeless families straight off the streets. The occupants may stay for up to 90 days before moving on to “transitional” housing. The final aim is to find permanent homes for the families to rent or own.

Designed by architect Arnold Stalk, the founder and director of LAFHC, Valley Shelter is a pleasant two- and three-storied pink-stuccoed building that rises above its surrounding urban mess of auto body shops and meat markets, yet manages not to seem out of place.

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This is a minimal kind of architecture, created at rock-bottom costs, that nonetheless skillfully manages to avoid a cheap or institutional air.

This may seem a modest achievement, but it is not. The hard-won simplicity of such architecture helps preserve the humanity of people whose dignity has been severely challenged by hardship.

Built around a central courtyard where children play and cars park, the shelter’s 97 rooms provide accommodations for up to 200 people. The complex also includes a schoolhouse for 80 children in grades one to six, a 200-seat dining room, a medical clinic with a full-time nurse and attendant doctor, and a library and beauty shop, plus offices for the 15 LAFHC staff members who run the shelter.

Each small apartment has a feeling of privacy while being part of the shared community. Consisting of one room divided into sleeping and living areas by a low partition, plus a bathroom, the apartments can accommodate a family of one or two parents and several children without seeming cramped.

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Large windows let in light and air, and the outlook into the central courtyard provides a sense of spaciousness to the individual apartments.

Throughout the shelter the architecture is humane in scale and detail.

There are nice touches, such as the child’s eye-level windows in the two-story schoolhouse. The LAFHC logo of a symbolic house profile, cut out in the front and back gable walls, adds a domestic air.

Hope is built into the shelter’s upbeat design. The colors throughout are light and cheerful. Cream interior walls and light green speckled acrylic flooring are set off by a muscular steel main stairway painted dark green.

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The central courtyard is the heart of this little community. All the rooms and balconies overlook it and garage-style overhead doors open out to the courtyard from the schoolhouse and dining room.

On its street frontages the Valley Shelter’s blank walls are relieved by panels of glass blocks, to provide security in a tough neighborhood where drug dealing and crime are common.

The shelter, in fact, grew out of such urban grit.

The two-story, renovated rear section of the new complex was originally the 1950s Valley Fiesta Motel. Advertised as “the last stop before the Mojave Desert,” the motel lapsed into decay in the 1970s as a hangout for hookers and pushers. Things got so bad the owner hid in a wire cage and took cash through a slot.

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When LAFHC took over the motel in 1986 its 77 rooms were rampant with roaches. The floorboards were rotten with mildew and patches of stucco were peeling.

The corporation renovated the rooms and operated the motel as an emergency shelter for several years. Eighteen months ago it raised the funds to add the new building on Lankershim Boulevard, which includes 20 new rooms plus ancillary facilities.

“Our aim is not only to rescue families from the street, but also to help them get on their feet again and rejoin the social mainstream,” Stalk said.

While the children are being reintegrated into the school system, mock job interviews, beauty shop make-overs for the women, literacy classes and adult education courses help parents recover their self-esteem and social confidence. In the safety of the shelter, families can turn their fate around.

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Funding for the shelter was raised from private foundations and public agencies in equal measure. The large percentage of private funding allowed Stalk to avoid much of the red tape delays involved in public sector financing. He completed the shelter from planning to opening in only 18 months, at a cost of $53 a square foot.

Although the Valley Shelter is LAFHC’s largest and most socially ambitious project, it is not its most sophisticated design.

Triangle House, in Boyle Heights, is more elegant. A white Cubist composition with an eccentric skyline and a bold use of galvanized pipe railings, Triangle House has an avant-garde verve absent in the Valley Shelter.

The shelter is closer in style to LAFHC’s 20-unit Villa Nueva complex in the Pico Union district across the Harbor Freeway west of downtown. Villa Nueva features pitched roofs and stuccoed walls in a suburban domestic idiom, intended to fit into the neighborhood rather than make a design statement.

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Triangle House proved that Stalk can achieve a humane and inexpensive style that is also lively and sharp. He might have tried a little harder to achieve this level of architecture in the shelter.

This caveat apart, it must be emphasized that Arnold Stalk, and his architect wife, Michelle, who helped him set up LAFHC, are worthy of much praise.

(Tanya Tull, director of Para Los Ninos, a Skid Row children’s care service, was a co-founder of LAFHC, but later withdrew from participation.)

They are among the very few architects who have found a way to fund and build homeless housing. In a profession that often agonizes over its social responsibilities but seldom achieves anything more than statements and studies, the Stalks have actually made things happen.

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Also, in the confusions of public policy and the paralysis of the private sector, the Stalks have developed an effective means of generating financial support. Such support, which LAFHC has steadily managed to increase over the years, comes mainly from foundations and from government bodies such as the Community Redevelopment Agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In the past eight years the Stalks have streamlined and expanded their organization. From its husband-and-wife beginnings, LAFHC now employs 48 full-time staff, including social workers and schoolteachers. In its winter “cold weather program,” LAFHC feeds up to 1,000 people.

Arnold Stalk explained that his concern for public housing originated when he was a student at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Santa Monica in the early 1980s.

“Dean Ray Kappe suggested I develop a social conscience,” Stalk explained, with a wry grin. “And over the years I got hooked.”

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Nowadays Arnold is totally involved in running LAFHC, while Michelle maintains their private architectural practice out of the couple’s office and home in Woodland Hills.

In its short but effective lifetime LAFHC has earned national recognition and numerous accolades. Said Jack Kemp, U.S. secretary of housing and urban development:

“The Los Angeles Family Housing Corp. is an example for the rest of the country as to what is possible when communities work together in public and private partnerships.”

Other officials have called for “a multitude of Stalk clones,” to get housing programs under way.

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Stalk believes that the San Fernando Valley in particular is rife with opportunities for housing the homeless. He points to the many empty lots, run-down motels and abandoned factories and warehouses as sites crying out for homes.

“I’d like to blitz the Valley,” he said. “The need is truly desperate here, and almost nothing is being done.”

That the need is desperate is evident in the faces of the families housed in the Valley Shelter.

Mothers and children have the look of people rescued in the nick of time from the degradation of homelessness. One more winter on the streets, or sleeping in cars or under bridges, might have killed all hope of climbing out of the pit of despair.

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For such families the Valley Shelter is a godsend.

Though she was shy about being named, one of the mothers, holding two babies, said without hesitation that “This place saved our lives. God bless Mr. Stalk and his people.”

Whiteson is a Los Angeles free lancer who writes on architecture for The Times.


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