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.
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."