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Shelter chief criticizes Antonovich

Advocates say the supervisor's office is trying to sabotage their effort to move homeless women and children to a facility near Sylmar.

February 17, 2007|Cara Mia DiMassa and Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writers

A year and a half after it was proposed, a novel effort to move homeless children and their mothers out of skid row and into a hillside encampment area near the Angeles National Forest is in danger of falling apart, officials said Friday.

The proposed 71-acre home for women and children trying to get out of homelessness and off downtown's skid row was supposed to be an easy project because it would be built far from homes in the foothills of the San Fernando Valley.

Officials called it an important litmus test for other efforts across the county to decentralize homeless services and spread the problems of skid row to outlying areas.

But on Friday, the president of Union Rescue Mission, which proposed the Hope Gardens complex, said the project is in jeopardy of falling apart, accusing Supervisor Mike Antonovich's office of trying to sabotage the effort.

The supervisor's staffers are doing "everything they can to delay women and children from moving out to Hope Gardens. They've gotten kind of nasty about it," Andrew J. Bales said, adding that delays have already cost the mission more than $1 million in legal costs and interest payments.

Antonovich's office, however, denies the charges and said the supervisor has not decided yet whether he will support the project, a key issue because it's in his district.

The stakes on the outcome of Hope Gardens are high. Last year, the county announced a $100-million program to spread the burden of homeless services across the region in an effort to improve conditions on skid row, which has the highest concentration of homeless people in the western United States.

The plan called for establishing five centers across the county that would provide temporary shelter and social services for transients. But the ideas met with immediate opposition from residents near some of the possible locations, and no sites have been chosen.

Homeless advocates have seen Hope Gardens as a potential model for how to move homeless services out of downtown.

Union Rescue Mission bought the property outside Sylmar in late 2005, paying $7.5 million for the abandoned retirement community. At the time, officials hoped to bring 275 women and children from skid row to the site, where they planned to offer apartments and support services on the site.

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

"They have portrayed this as" bringing in "beautiful little children," said Marlene Rader, the co-chair of the Kagel Canyon Preservation Committee, who said she was speaking only for herself. "These are not just little children."

The Kagel Canyon residents voted nearly 4 to 1 against the new shelter, and they urged county officials, including Antonovich, to oppose the project.

Rader said she believed that Bales and other mission officials had not answered residents' legitimate concerns about the structure of the Hope Gardens program. "Structure makes a huge difference," she said, "and I haven't seen it."

"These are our homes," Rader said. "I know that something has to be done downtown, but I don't think the Union Rescue Mission is addressing the real issue. I really believe that this is just relocating people and the problem."

Bales, meanwhile, alleged that residents opposed to the project had been receiving counsel from Antonovich's planning deputy, Paul Novak, on how to substantively oppose the project. Bales cited minutes from a community meeting in which Novak discussed the project but did not actually say he opposed it.

Kagel Canyon resident Lloyd Gunn -- who was at the meeting -- echoed Bales' concern. He said Novak was "definitely against Hope Gardens. He said, you don't have to worry ... we'll make sure they have to do a full environmental impact review" -- something that the mission has not had to do and that could delay the project further.

"He assisted Kagel Canyon residents, he's gone around me, he's gone around my board, he's been very active, been a detriment to our women and kids," Bales said. "He's revving up the Kagel Canyon folks against us."

And that, Bales said, shows the supervisor has decided to oppose the project, despite previous promises to wait until the matter appeared before the Board of Supervisors. "There's no question that Mike Antonovich hasn't made up his mind," Bales said. "He's absolutely against it."

But Novak disputed charges that he had helped the shelter's opponents. Novak said he had advised opponents and representatives of the mission to look beyond emotional issues and focus on the environmental effects the shelter would have on the neighborhood. He said the supervisor's office has forwarded letters from opponents and supporters of the proposed shelter to the county Department of Regional Planning.

"Hope Gardens is being treated and processed in the same manner as any other land-use project," Novak said. "The supervisor is keeping an open mind."

Union Rescue Mission officials said they expected to appear before the county's Planning Commission in April. Novak's office said no date had been set. If the commission decides to grant the mission a conditional use permit, and neighbors appeal that decision, the full Board of Supervisors would have to vote on the matter.

cara.dimassa@latimes.com

jack.leonard@latimes.com

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