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Homeless Center Plan Spurs Resistance

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Times Staff Writer

In the foothills of the San Fernando Valley sits a quiet retreat studded with low-slung buildings and lushly landscaped walkways. Birds chirp from swaying branches of sycamores and oaks and a multilevel koi pond near the entrance gurgles softly.

It once was home to senior citizens who could live out their final years in nature’s embrace. Now a homeless agency in downtown Los Angeles wants to convert the wooded, 71-acre property into transitional housing for 275 homeless women and children.

The idea has generated heavy opposition from residents of nearby Kagel Canyon, even though the two are about a mile apart and separated by a mountain and a winding road. The closest residences are in a mobile home park about a quarter of a mile away.

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The Hope Gardens Family Center is emerging as an important litmus test of the county’s new effort to shift the concentration of homeless services from downtown Los Angeles to the suburbs. The Board of Supervisors voted last month to establish five regional homeless centers across the county -- a move that immediately generated opposition in many communities.

But officials at the Union Rescue Mission thought their plan for Hope Gardens was a slam-dunk because the site is hidden away in the isolated foothills of the Angeles National Forest.

Now homeless advocates ask: If Hope Gardens can’t succeed, how can any services for transients gain a foothold in the suburbs?

The mission bought the property in an unincorporated area east of Lake View Terrace for $7.5 million last year, with the intention of housing homeless women and their children there for up to two years while the mothers worked to find jobs and permanent housing. A smaller group of elderly women who are too old to work would live there permanently.

Currently, homeless women and children served by the mission stay at the Christian organization’s shelter downtown in skid row with men, drug addicts and criminals who have served jail time.

“We have to get the kids off the street and out of a neighborhood that has 400 registered sex offenders,” said mission President Andy Bales. “They’ll be able to go on hikes and play in a 71-acre garden. It will be a whole new way of life for them.”

Before Hope Gardens can open its doors, the county must approve a permit allowing the land on Lopez Canyon Road to be used to house families.

But neighbors from the influential Kagel Canyon Community Assn. -- a group instrumental in shutting down the nearby Lopez Canyon dump 10 years ago -- have urged county Supervisor Mike Antonovich to oppose the project.

“I think it’s a great thing, but I don’t think this is the place to have it,” said Donna Lauber, who lives in Kagel Canyon about two miles from the proposed site. “We don’t want downtown L.A. right here in our backyard. I think it’s a recipe for disaster.”

In a vote sponsored by the community association last week, 131 residents opposed the project and 34 favored it. About 380 families live in the rustic canyon.

A spokesman for Antonovich said that the supervisor has not made up his mind on the matter and that he needed to hear all sides before he could reach a decision. Antonovich was the only supervisor to vote against the county’s homeless plan last month, citing concerns over costs and the potential for spreading the problem of homelessness.

“It would be premature for him to have an opinion before seeing the application and hearing public testimony,” said spokesman Tony Bell. “At this point, an application hasn’t been filed yet. We haven’t seen anything official.”

Bales said the application would be filed soon. He has been working with area homeowners from Lake View Terrace to Sylmar over the last six months to gain their support.

When neighbors complained that Hope residents would start forest fires by smoking, he said special cigarette lighters that don’t cause sparks would be used and that smoking would be limited to designated areas.

When they said residents would walk to their neighborhood and vandalize homes and property, he pointed out that most of those at Hope Gardens would be young children and their mothers.

Furthermore, he said, families will be screened before they are admitted to Hope Gardens and monitored after they arrive.

At least some residents said after meeting with Rescue Mission officials that they can support the project.

“People who are against it have fear as a motivator,” said Randy Drew, president of the Kagel Canyon Community Assn. “People who are for it say ‘Yeah, it could cause some problems, so I don’t want to be too for it.’ But they don’t have the motivation the people who are afraid have.”

One of the most vocal opponents is Lauber, who has lived on Kagel Canyon Road with her husband, Tim Lauber, for eight years. She is adamant that Hope Gardens not be allowed to open because she fears that the children who live at the shelter will be recruited by local drug dealers and that the women’s sometimes abusive husbands and boyfriends will find their way to the shelter and cause trouble.

“The saddest thing is, some of these people will go and recruit these kids and use them as drug mules,” she said. “And some of the neo-Nazi types work hand in hand with the methamphetamine manufacturers and drug runners. I call it a carousel of crime.”

Kagel Canyon is an eclectic cluster of houses tucked away in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Wedged between a cemetery and the suburban area of Lake View Terrace, east of the 210 Freeway, Kagel Canyon manages to be off the beaten path while still close to jobs in the San Fernando Valley and beyond.

The canyon’s sole commercial enterprise is a bar called the Hideaway. A park and a fire station are its only public amenities.

When Lauber moved to Kagel Canyon, she said, a local park was controlled by gang members and methamphetamine was cooked in some homes.

She and other residents have worked for years to rid the neighborhood of the bikers, drug dealers and “crazy hillbillies” attracted to the canyon’s out-of-the-way location, she said.

Some of these people still live in the community, she added, and she believes they will try to lure financially and emotionally vulnerable shelter residents into their criminal activities.

“These kinds of people will use these kids to run their drugs for them,” she said. “You’re going to set them up for failure.”

Lauber also said she resents what she sees as downtown L.A. property owners trying to clean up skid row for the area’s new luxury loft dwellers at her expense.

“They want to get the homeless out of downtown L.A.,” said Lauber, who lives in a modest, one-story house with a horse stable out front. “Who wants to spend $1 million on a condo when you might get attacked outside?”

But Valerie Wilson, a graduate student who lives next door to Lauber, is more positive.

“I really don’t see any harm here,” Wilson said. “There seems to be a feeling property values will go down, but I don’t think it’s true.

“The people moving in will be screened. It’s not like they’re going to have cars. But people get nervous; they imagine things.”

High school teacher Cody Carter, an 11-year resident of the canyon, said he’s more concerned about residents at Phoenix House -- a rehab center for teenagers up the street from him -- than the future residents of Hope Gardens.

“These individuals have children and they’re wanting to get back on their feet,” he said of Hope Gardens’ clientele. “Let’s get them out and get them back into a community.

“There are so many things that can cause people to lose their homes, especially here in L.A., where the cost of living is so high. I wouldn’t want my wife to be in that situation.”


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