L.A.'s Union Rescue Mission issues urgent donor appeal


SYLMAR, Calif. — Hope Gardens Family Center, which opened its doors in 2006 to provide shelter and resources for Skid Row mom's and their children, will close its doors this summer unless it can raise $2.8 million by June 30.

Like other homeless ministries nationwide, the Union Rescue Mission, which operates Hope Gardens, is facing skyrocketing demand at a time when donations have plummeted. In the past two years, the mission has increased its services by 45 percent in response to the growing economic crisis. This year alone, donations are down 21 percent.

The devastating combination prompted the Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of the rescue mission, to issue an urgent plea May 24 via his blog.

"Thank you for taking time to read what I promise is a once-in-a-lifetime letter from me," his post started.

In an effort to cut expenses, the ministry had already cut salaries, eliminated its matching 401K benefits and laid off eight employees. Although a sustainability plan has been developed to help the center in the future, it needs to raise the $2.8 million to survive the immediate crunch. As of May 24, the mission had raised $468,000. Its annual operating budget is $4 million.

"Closing Hope Gardens would be my worst nightmare…I am not sure my heart could take watching the precious women and children gathering up their belongings and moving out of the oasis of peace, safety, opportunity and hope we have fought so hard to provide," the CEO said.

In a phone interview four days after the plea was issued, Bales said nearly $100,000 had come in, bringing the total to $560,000.

"I'm very hopeful, not confident, yet, but hopeful," Bales said.

If the center does close it will impact 34 moms, their 74 children and 23 elderly women, each of whom were once living on Skid Row. In addition, the ministry had planned to place another 34 families into Hope Gardens.

"Our last board meeting was the most grueling meeting I have experienced in my 32 years of ministry and nonprofit work," Bales wrote. "Everyone was kind and supportive, but the circumstances are alarming and battered my soul."

The mission purchased the 77-acre site in late 2005 in an effort to help elderly homeless women and young mothers transition back into society away from the pervasive dangers of Skid Row. Previously owned and operated as Foresters Haven retirement community, the site—adjacent to the Angeles National Forest—provided a rural setting that would allow the mission's children to have some romping room. Ten months later, senior women moved into center and families followed a year after that.

Other missions also hit hard
Bales' plea comes as other local rescue missions are also facing dire economic times. In a plea to curb a $343,798 shortfall, the Orange County Rescue Mission issued its alert to donors in April.

"We are pleading with the community to remember that every little bit helps and to donate what they can to help meet this very real need that exists within our community." said Jim Palmer, president of the Tustin-based rescue mission.

Herb Johnson, president and CEO of the San Diego Rescue Mission, said his dilemma is also catastrophic because of a large drop in corporate donations, their largest support source.

"This is probably the most troublesome year we've ever had in the history of the rescue mission," he said, likening the economy to the East Coast weather term "perfect storm" which refers to the devastation caused when a full moon, lingering low pressure system and a seasonal hide tide converge at the same time.

"It's not because of a lack of attention or work," he said. "Everybody is frustrated. You can only dig in your hole so long. The unfortunate thing for us is it's almost like a perfect storm.

 "That's what's happening to us. It's almost a bewitching night. We have less donations, less corporate sponsors and resources, and more clients with deeply profound issues."

Bales said he believes the recession is only part of the issue.

"It might even be part of a paradigm shift in how people give money," he said, adding that many families have dropped their monthly pledges as their own financial outlook has tightened. Direct mail campaigns, the executive said, have also become less effective.

"This is probably the most challenging time our 119-year history," Bales said.

For more information on the Union Rescue Mission, visit www.urm.org. For more information on the Orange County Rescue Mission, go to www.rescuemission.org.

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