January 18, 2019

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.”