Valley homeless organization breaks ground for impressive complex

When Valley Shelter opened some 30 years ago in a former motel on Lankershim Boulevard, it was the San Fernando Valley’s first refuge for homeless families. The complex, part of LA Family Housing (LAFH), became home to 250 people at any given time. 

But there had been growing pains as the North Hollywood facility fell into disrepair and L.A.’s homeless population ballooned. As part of a 10-year plan to serve more people — and do it better — LAFH has undertaken a $50 million improvement project that took a major step earlier this month.

On June 2, officials gathered at the site of the shelter, which is in the process of being demolished, for the groundbreaking of what will be known as The Campus at LA Family Housing. The 80,000-square-foot facility will feature a stunning façade with many windows, a beautifully landscaped central courtyard and a health center that is nearly four times larger than the former center. It is expected to open in 2018.

Among those in attendance at the groundbreaking were Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Los Angeles), L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl (as well as her predecessor, Zev Yaroslavsky), and L.A. City Councilmember Nury Martinez. But perhaps no one was more excited than the woman who has been president and CEO of the agency for the last nine years, Stephanie Klasky-Gamer. 

“Over 30-plus years, we have brought best practices to Valley Shelter,” the North Hollywood resident, who is currently working with a dozen or so staffers out of temporary offices in Van Nuys, told the Journal. “The Campus is the next generation of that, allowing us to serve thousands more people. We are no longer limited to serving families living at Valley Shelter. Before, we only provided services to people who lived here.”

The concept is that LAFH will be able to serve people who walk in off the street at The Campus, offering not just housing but legal services, health and dental care, as well as behavioral and mental health care. Representatives from each team will work together on behalf of each client. 

The Campus also will include 50 new units of permanent supportive housing, something they did not have before. The target population for these units is single adults who have experienced homelessness and live with a disability, according to Klasky-Gamer. These residents will enter their apartments from Simpson Avenue, a quiet residential street, instead of walking through a parking lot off Lankershim to get home as residents of Valley Shelter used to do. The 50 units are in addition to what is known as bridge housing (temporary housing) for up to 450 people at The Campus.

The goal with The Campus “is to ensure a quality experience for [all] its users,” Klasky-Gamer said. 

The hope is that part of that will be achieved through the architecture itself. Designed by the Pasadena firm Gonzalez Goodale Architects after six months of visioning with LAFH staff and board members, community leaders and representatives from the health clinic, The Campus could be the brand-new student center at a well-endowed private university. 

“The building is going to be flooded with natural light. It is open,” Klasky-Gamer said. 

The Campus at LA Family Housing 

Pointing to the blueprints, she added, “You’ll walk through these doors and the first thing you’ll see is a beautiful welcome desk staffed by greeters who will ask, ‘Do you have an appointment?’ Then there will be a warm handoff and they will walk them to the service center. We wanted to create a space where people felt welcome.

“Our experience proves that investment in quality design and sustainable, green construction ultimately benefits the residents and clients we serve, and provides a positive experience for all of our staff, guests and supporters as well,” Klasky-Gamer said. “As one of our residents recently said to me about her apartment at our stunning Palo Verde property, ‘The condition of my home is the condition of my mind.’ She is healthy and happy and stable after years of homelessness and untreated mental illness.” 

Former residents of Valley Shelter have been moved into what was family housing next door. That building, part of what is now known as the south campus, underwent an extensive renovation in recent months and now features a technology center and serenity lounge. The families that lived there previously were relocated to area apartments, something that was going to happen anyway. 

“The idea is to integrate families into the community sooner,” said Klasky-Gamer, 48, whose family worships at Adat Ari El.

LAFH currently operates 23 properties across the city. Valley Shelter opened in 1985 and was started by the Valley Interfaith Council, then chaired by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben. It merged with LAFH in 1986. 

The new undertaking received a little over $30 million in public funds from federal, county and city sources, and there remains about $5 million left to be raised. According to Santa Monica resident Matthew Irmas, who is chairing the capital campaign, “The really good part of starting the public portion of the campaign is that we are so far down the road. … The train has left the station. So it’s a lot easier for people to jump on.”

Irmas, of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, his family and their foundations (The Audrey & Sydney Irmas Charitable Foundation, and The Audrey Irmas Foundation for Social Justice) have been among the most active and generous supporters of LAFH over the years, going back nearly to its inception.

The Campus at LAFH will enable the agency to remain a leader, not just in San Fernando Valley but beyond, Klasky-Gamer said. 

“We’re a leader across the county in both the model of services and the effectiveness of our services,” she said. “This is a home worthy of that role we play and the model that this campus will be.” 

Hope and help for the homeless at LAFH

Los Angeles Family Housing (LAFH) is the largest provider of homeless services in the San Fernando Valley. The organization got its start in the early 1980s with the conversion of an old North Hollywood motel to house homeless families. Today, LAFH encompasses 23 properties, from Lancaster to Boyle Heights. 

The organization proudly sees 92 percent of its clients go on to secure permanent housing. Last year, it served nearly 3,500 people. 

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, 46, has been president and CEO of LAFH since 2007. Jewish Journal sat down with the Northridge native and longtime Adat Ari El member in her office at the Sydney M. Irmas Transitional Living Center in North Hollywood, which is home to 65 families, to discuss everything from the myth of people “choosing” to live on the streets to ways that even child volunteers can make a difference.

Jewish Journal: How do individuals or families connect with you? Or how do you connect with them?

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer: We are one of the most sought-after shelters in the county, for families, primarily because of our unique model that allows families to stay together. In contrast, at most shelters … they have a women’s floor and a men’s floor. They separate by gender from 14 on. So a little girl could not stay with her dad.

[At LAFH] whether you are a single dad with his little girl or you are a grandpa, mother, father and four teenage boys, we can accommodate any configuration of a family. It might be crowded if you’re a family of 10, but you have your own bathroom, and the door locks. So, we’re well-known and always full.

How do singles come to us? Word of mouth. We are the only shelter for individuals that is non-recovery-based in the Valley. 

In the last two years we have made a much more concerted effort to do street-based outreach: We go into Tujunga Wash, meet individuals who have been living burrowed in brush for 15 years; we go out into Lake View Terrace. A gentleman we met there, his name is The Wizard. He’s been living at the side of a freeway off-ramp literally for 22 years. So we’re going out into the streets more and identifying the most vulnerable.

JJ: But not everyone necessarily wants help, right?

SKG: We see it as they are not ready for it yet. Nobody wants to live on the street. They may be incapacitated because of mental health. They may be scared.

We just opened up a new part of a building last year. The Wizard, he moved into his own apartment there. It’s not a shelter. He signed a lease. He’s cooking meals in his own kitchen. That took about a year and a half: getting him first to come indoors, then, once indoors, to stay indoors.

JJ: What sort of opportunities are there for volunteers?

SKG: We have a number of volunteer opportunities that we really try to make meaningful for the volunteer and supportive of what our residents need. It could range from hosting a monthly birthday party for all the kids on that property to working in our kitchens and helping to prepare a meal. Another option that is not on-site but that is truly beneficial is doing a collection. We have corporations that do, for example, Toothpaste Tuesdays or diapers on Friday and then donating that to us. 

We just had a teenager do a fabulous reading-cooking club. She would read children’s books to little kids that all had some food association, like “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” and they would make cookies. 

We have a tremendous amount of community volunteers through high schools. A lot of them provide assistance through Homework Club. We even have little kids coming on-site. They might be sorting welcome baskets. 

JJ: Beyond providing for their basic needs, what can LAFH do to foster a sense of pride and drive in the clients, especially the kids? 

SKG: They have to earn it here. We have Scrub Day Fridays. Residents have to give back and help clean. There is a lot of focus in our family programs on educating, and educational enrichment. We have a lot of incentives to help our kids succeed academically. 

One of the things we do really well: We celebrate milestones all along our residents’ journeys. We don’t just celebrate when they move into permanent housing. We recognize that a kid gets a great attendance record. If he got a C on a spelling test and he hadn’t been engaged before, we celebrate that. If someone gets a certificate in a job training program, we celebrate. We don’t just celebrate the getting the job. I think that fosters a great sense of pride in the accomplishments that each resident is achieving. 

We [also] have a mandatory savings program.

JJ: There’s a bank at LAFH?

SKG: Yes there is, without any fees. Many of our residents don’t have any form of credit. We do a lot of work on creating budgets and savings. There is tremendous pride when a resident leaves and realizes they saved $2,000. 

They are supposed to save 80 percent of their income no matter what their income is. Remember, they don’t have any expenses when they are living here. They are going to have a lot of expenses when they move out. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting $200 a month in general relief or earning $1,200 a month — we want you to save 80 percent so you leave with some cushion and you get in the good habit of saving.

JJ: Can you share a success story?

SKG: Fara’s story is a wonderful success story. She [and her four children] moved out of the shelter about four years ago. They have remained stable and successful. The mom is Fara, and the oldest daughter is Fara also. They lived here for three years. Fara [the daughter] is only 15 now. She was, like, 11 when she lived here. These were really children who grew up homeless.

That they succeeded in their transition out of homelessness — a single mom with a lot of barriers — this is the proudest, happiest family unit you could meet. Fara [the daughter] is a successful cheerleader in high school, getting straight A’s. … What Fara’s daughter always says is, “My mom always taught us not to let our situation define us. It’s because of her we succeeded.” 

Powerful Trio; House is a Home

A Powerful Trio

It was a night to acknowledge accomplished women Nov. 1, when 300 people celebrated the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) 12th annual Deborah Awards. This year’s honorees, Louise Bryson of Lifetime Entertainment, Shelley Freeman of Wells Fargo Bank and Monica Lozano of La Opinion, were honored for their commitment to philanthropy, community and diversity. The event, which raised more than $200,000 for the ADL, included a speech from Caitlin Lang, a former ADL intern and Sugihara Fellow, who spoke about the A World Of Difference Institute educational program and how her life has changed through her work with the ADL.

House Is a Home

Los Angeles Family Housing (LAFH) raised $500,000 at its seventh annual awards dinner attended by 400 supporters Oct. 19 at Universal Studios. More than 400 attended the event to fund housing for the homeless and low-income Angelenos. The dinner, chaired by Deborah Kamins Irmas and Matthew Irmas of Santa Monica, honored founding board member the Rev. John Simmons and Los Angeles Business Council President Mary Leslie. Comedian Paul Rodriguez entertained the crowd.

The crowd stood and applauded as Simmons, an 89-year-old Lutheran minister from Burbank received the Sydney M. Irmas Outstanding Humanitarian Award named for LAFH’s original donor. With Irmas’ help, Simmons and a number of clergy and others took a blighted North Hollywood motel and turned it into the organization that today includes 21 facilities in the San Fernando Valley and East and South Los Angeles, and has served 100,000 homeless and low-income families.
Admonishing the audience that “if you care, you must share,” Simmons said LAFH wouldn’t exist without the continuing generosity and commitment of the entire Irmas family.

Emmy-winning actor Edward Asner remarked, “Popular or not, John is always on the side of justice.”

Asner gave money to Simmons’ 1986 and 1988 congressional campaigns.

“Not enough!” Simmons joked, who lost both races.

LAFH board member and president/CEO of Century Housing G. Allan Kingston of Culver City presented the L.A. Family Housing Legacy Award to Mary Leslie of Cheviot Hills. Leslie joked she was “way too young” for a legacy award, saying “whether what’s motivating you is morality or monetary gain, it’s in our best economic interest to provide safe, affordable housing to attract and retain a strong workforce and housing for wage earners at every economic level.”

Guests enjoyed the music of the Oakwood School Jazz Band of North Hollywood and The Pat Longo Orchestra while chowing down on a sumptuous dinner catered by Wolfgang Puck.

For more information about L.A. Family Housing go to

A Bit of a Bite

The food was the star of the evening at Morton’s last week when the Bogart Pediatric Cancer Research Program presented an Inaugural Epicurean Celebration, a dinner to benefit the charity dedicated to supporting research into effective treatments and cures for children’s cancer, leukemia and AIDS. More than $100,000 was raised to help the children, as well as enough to buy them holiday gifts for their annual holiday party.

James Beard award-winning chef Daniel Joly, owner and executive chef of Mirabelle at Beaver Creek, prepared a sumptuous “Trilogy Dinner” accompanied by wines for each course. The evening was co-chaired by Robert Hollander and Pam Morton, along with event committee members Mike Brzostowski, Paula Doherty, Sara Duffy, Bonnie Engle, Dan and Luana Romanelli and I.H. Sutnick.

For more information about the Bogart research program, call (323) 330-0520.

Hadassah’s Unity With Israel

A group of 60 participated in Hadassah’s Unity Mission to Israel, where they traveled throughout the north, visiting with families affected by this summer’s war with Hezbollah, and down to Sderot, the Israeli town on the border with Gaza, that is still being shelled daily. Above, Los Angeles residents Shelly and Bruce Sobol plant a cedar sapling to replace the trees that burned when Hezbollah Kaytusha rockets set forest fires. As one of its responses to the war in Lebanon, Hadassah furnished the Jewish National Fund with a state-of-the-art fire truck with a self-contained water tank, invaluable in areas without ready water supplies, like much of Israel’s northern forestland.