SYLMAR, Calif. Last Christmas Shannon Guardado and her children were homeless, living in a Costa Mesa motel. This Christmas will be different. The single mother and her 5-, 7- and 8-year-olds, have a new home and a chance to put two years of personal and financial hardship behind them.
This year they will celebrate Christmas at Hope Gardens Family Center, a transitional housing and job training facility established by the Union Rescue Mission.
Being home for Christmas is no longer a wish but a dream come true for 50 homeless women and children who now reside at Hope Gardens' 71-acre property. Mature trees, lush gardens with a babbling brook, a koi pond and a new playground create tranquil surroundings for the facility's lodge-style apartments and offices. Located in foothills at the north end of the San Fernando Valley and bordering the Angeles National Forest, the family center will eventually accommodate 225 homeless women and children.
The Los Angeles-based Union Rescue Mission purchased the facility, an abandoned retirement complex, in 2005, but opposition from nearby property owners delayed its development. The Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission approved Hope Gardens' permit, requiring residents to enter in phases, last May. The first families moved in June 27.
"We see people not just how they are, but as who they can become," said the Rev. Andy Bales, CEO for the Union Rescue Mission. "We see these moms being successful," he said. "It is worth the effort."
Residents must be referred and screened before moving in, Bales explained.
"They must be ready and willing to change their life," he said.
Hope Gardens offers parenting classes, job training, a career center and a child care co-op for women residents. The complex includes a learning center, and youth room and provides after-school programs for children.
In addition to those in the transitional program, 22 long-term homeless or disabled women, ranging in age from 59 to 80, are now permanent residents at Hope Gardens.
"They are there just to enjoy life, not to transition out (into the community)," Bales said, explaining that typically their fixed incomes are not enough to pay rent.
Striving for self-sufficiency
The comprehensive job training that is central to Hope Gardens residential program is designed to move women to self-sufficiency within a 12- to 36-month period, depending on individual circumstances. After finding employment, residents give a portion of their earnings to Hope Gardens for housing costs and save some to use after they transition out.
Guardado, the mother of three, is on her way to becoming one of Hope Garden's success stories. The single mother was forced to relocate after her Miami area home was destroyed by Hurricane Wilma two years ago. With no family members to help her, she made her way across the country looking for a place to put down rootswithout success. After settling in Costa Mesa she found her paycheck was not enough to cover the rent for a one-bedroom apartment and child care expenses for her children.
Forced to relocate to a motel, Guardado was getting help from Orange Coast Interfaith Shelter and Mariner's Church when her children saw a television newscast segment about Hope Gardens Family Center. Three weeks later they moved in.
"It has changed my life," Guardado said. "Now we can focus on each other."
Guardado said that before moving to Hope Gardens she was so stressed her hair was falling out. Last year her children attended seven different schools. Now they have settled into Fenton Elementary and they are thriving. She is taking classes that will improve her job skills and hopes to find work as a writer.
"This experience is like having rich parents. Hope Gardens provides a support system for me. It is like an anchor," Guardado said, adding that, for the first time in three years, she feels she and her kids have some stability in their lives.
Last Christmas Kat Pitt was pregnant and struggling to pay her rent. A self-described recovering addict, she ended up living at Elizabeth House, a crisis pregnancy shelter in Pasadena. Her case manager there referred her to Hope Gardens after she gave birth. She moved in August 20.
The upbeat 43 year-old has grown children and is a grandmother.
"Zoe was a surprise, but she was a blessing," Pitt said of her 5-month-old daughter.
She described Hope Gardens as "awesome." Pitt said it is where she has learned there is a solution or a resource for every problem. Her goal is to become a counselor.
"I want to work with teens and show them that there is a different way," she said. "I am celebrating two years free of drug addition."
The number of full-time and part-time staff at the Sylmar complex is approaching 40 and is supplemented by a host of volunteers. Christ Lutheran Church of Santa Clarita put on a Thanksgiving Dinner for Hope Gardens Residents.
For more information about Hope Gardens visit the Web site www.hopegardens.org.
For volunteer information, call (213) 673-4814.