In the wooded foothills of the San Fernando Valley, Jasani Espy found a peaceful sanctuary in which to recover from years of homelessness and abuse.
On Saturday, she and her four children moved into an apartment of their own.
They are among dozens of families helped by Hope Gardens Family Center, a transitional housing facility for women and children surrounded by lush trees and flowerbeds, a burbling stream and a koi pond.
“It gave me time to heal,” said the 25-year-old South L.A. native as she filled cardboard boxes with clothes and rolls of toilet paper last week. “It helped me get back on the right track.”
Advocates see Hope Gardens as a model of how to decentralize services for the homeless, which they say is key to improving conditions in downtown’s skid row. But three years after opening, Hope Gardens faces the possibility of having to close its doors unless operators can raise $2.8 million by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
“These last few years have been devastating,” said Andy Bales, chief executive of Union Rescue Mission, which runs the center.
Demand for Union Rescue Mission’s services, which include a downtown shelter, has increased 45% in the last two years, Bales said. Yet donations are down 21% from last year.
Hope Gardens’ operating costs are roughly $4 million a year. In addition, the center must make payments on an $8-million mortgage. By late May, however, only $468,000 had been raised for next year’s budget. Bales issued an emergency appeal, which has generated close to $2 million in donations.
With just days left to close the gap, Bales said the loss of Hope Gardens would be devastating for the 34 mothers, 71 children and 23 elderly women who have found refuge there.
Espy was on the edge of despair when she walked into Union Rescue Mission’s downtown shelter a year and a half ago. Five months pregnant, she had just spent the night squeezed into a car with three children under 5 and a husband who beat her so hard he once shattered her nose.
When her husband abandoned her at the shelter, Bales suggested that she and the children move to Hope Gardens. Espy couldn’t believe the difference.
On skid row, they were surrounded by drugs, alcohol, violence and filth. When she walked the children to school, she said, “I would tell them to hold on to the stroller and keep their heads down.”
At Hope Gardens, “You really get to do things you would never be able to do downtown, like pull out a blanket and have a picnic with the kids on the grass,” she said. “You get to experience how beautiful life is.”
The family was assigned a freshly painted two-room apartment in a Craftsman-inspired block. She attended classes on domestic violence, parenting and financial management. When she was ready, the staff helped her file for divorce and apply for Section 8 housing.
“I’m going to miss this place,” she said. “Without them, I would probably be six feet under from my husband abusing me.”
A survey conducted last year by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found that family members made up about 5,000 of the more than 42,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County. But service providers say the number is much higher.
For Kasha Tepezano, 36, from Oxnard, Hope Gardens has been a place to bond with her boys, 6 and 5, after years of drug abuse and a stint in jail.
“I didn’t even know them, really,” she said on the way to a school show.
But she said staff members were on hand when she needed support. With their help, she said, she has remained sober for more than two years.
Union Rescue Mission bought the 77-acre property, a former retirement community outside Sylmar, in late 2005. The project generated fierce opposition from residents of Kagel Canyon, about a mile away, and other communities. They complained that it would heighten the risk of fire; attract crime and drugs; and lower property values.
It took 21 months, 34 neighborhood meetings — or “beatings,” as Bales calls them — and more than $1 million in legal fees and interest costs before Union Rescue Mission obtained a permit for the facility.
“That’s one reason we just can’t see giving up,” Bales said.
When the center opened in June 2007, its staff hoped to transfer about 225 women and children from skid row in phases. But fundraising did not increase sufficiently to support both facilities, Bales said.
Joan Hephzibah, 41, has no idea what she will do if the center closes. Unlike Hope Gardens, most women’s shelters won’t take teenage boys, so she would have to send her 16-year-old son to a men’s facility.
A mother of six, she moved to the U.S. from Britain with an abusive ex-husband. He abandoned them when she was pregnant with her youngest boy, now 3. For more than a year, they stayed in motels and the homes of church families.
The frequent moves disrupted the children’s schooling. But at Hope Gardens, she said, they have the stability and structure to excel. She is learning to make jewelry to support the family.
“It’s a blessing to be here,” she said.
Bales said Union Rescue Mission is developing a plan to make the center financially viable. All employees have already accepted two 5% pay cuts, and eight were laid off, he said. The organization is also appealing for long-term support from the Los Angeles County, which pays for security, counseling and other services at the site.
“We really need a dozen Hope Gardens,” Bales said. “We certainly don’t need to close one down.”