The plug had long been pulled from the old health center on 60th Street West, its main building and structures on flat desert land sat dark and empty for a while.
Then in November, members from the Salvation Army came in and turned the lights back on. They hooked up the gaslines for heat, lined up almost 100 cots, moved in the mobile showers and parked a kitchen on wheels at the curb.
Life has pumped back into the old High Desert Multi-Service Ambulatory Care Center in West Lancaster, which is now Los Angeles County’s only 24-hour, temporary emergency winter shelter.
For the homeless men and women of the Antelope Valley, the new shelter has been like a bright star of hope hanging over the lonesome desert.
“Here you get a chance to take care of yourself,” said Linda Pree, 66, who has been homeless on and off in the valley for the last seven years. She was recently released from Antelope Valley Hospital, she said, and needed a place to recuperate.
“It’s hard to take your medicines when you live on the streets,” Pree added.
That the shelter is up and running is a miracle of sorts, said members of the Salvation Army, as well as county officials and local providers.
Isolation, distance from downtown Los Angeles, and extreme weather have long proven to be challenges when it comes to providing services for the thousands of men and women who are homeless in and around the cities of Palmdale and Lancaster.
“The challenges facing this project were significant,” noted Dana Rae Vanderford, the Homeless Services Deputy for Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger.
“We had a remote location and an extremely short time frame to open the shelter before freezing temperatures set in,” she added. “Making this happen required relentless optimism, creative thinking and strategic partnerships on the part of every entity involved.”
There also was more urgency this year.
Over the summer, the 108-bed Lancaster Community Shelter shuttered its doors for lack of funding. It’s closure was not only a blow to the community but it came when homelessness surged by 50 percent in the Antelope Valley. A count in Janauary revealed there 4,559 homeless men, women and children in the region, up from last year’s 3,038, according to figures released by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, also known as LAHSA.
In addition, the area has different challenges compared to other parts of Los Angeles County, including distance from a cluster of services in downtown LA, affordable housing, searing hot summers followed by bone chilling, windy winters.
In response, Barger introduced a motion in October, which was approved by the Board to open the Lancaster National Guard Armory, for at least 125 beds from November 10, 2017, through March 10, 2018. Her motion also added the former High Desert Multiple Ambulatory Care Center for almost 100 beds as a temporary 24-hour homeless shelter, during the same November-through-March time period.
Each shelter costs about $280,000 to operate, using both one-time homeless-prevention county funds from her district and money generated by Measure H, the quarter-cent sales tax initiative passed by Los Angeles County voters in March.
The tax is estimated to raise $355 million a year for 10 years to help homeless people transition into affordable housing units.
“This is what its about,” Barger said one recent morning before she toured the 24-hour shelter, where rooms hummed with a variety of activity, from yoga to nutrition classes.
Most county operated shelters run a sun-down-to-sun-up system, meaning people line up at night to get a cot, then leave early in the morning. The goal of Lancaster’s 24-hour shelter is to connect people to services during the daytime, and help them with everything from obtaining new identification and social security cards, enrolling them into county programs, linking them to job training and placing their names on waiting lists for affordable housing.
“Up here, it wasn’t just about providing a roof over their heads, but a continium of care,” Barger said. “It was a group effort. Presents aside, this is the greatest gift you can give for the holiday.”
But she emphasized it’s not a solution to the area’s needs or for the homeless there. After the Lancaster shelter shuttered over the summer, Barger pressed for the creation of a community consortium, so that local lawmakers, members of law enforcement, and those from nonprofit organizations could collaborate and come up with a more stable solution.
Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Perris praised Barger and the county’s efforts, saying the city needed the push and support to coordinate efforts.
“We had families living in holes in the desert,” Perris said of the circumstances some people faced in his city, including living in makeshift bunkers in the ground.
Meanwhile, staff with the Salvation Army said they’ve been running the shelter at capacity each night. The age range is 18 to 83. Of the 93 people who stay there, a little more than a half are men.
Some already have been connected with housing. Others have been reunited with family members, Salvation Army staff members said.
Salvation Army Lt. Hector Acosta said he took a chance and pulled red kettle volunteers and staff off their beats to help him operate the shelter. He said that move has resulted in a drop in area donations for the season, but he hoped people would see the kind of work the Salvation Army does at the shelter and maybe drop in some extra change or write a check to donate.
Pree, the 66-year-old woman who has stayed at the shelter for more than 17 days, said she hopes to have her own room one day, to rest her head on her own pillow, sit in a warm tub in her own private bathroom, and be ina quiet place where she can crack open her Bible and read her favorite passages.
But in the meantime, she said she is grateful for the shelter. She has found some peace.
“It’s quiet here,” she added. “The food here is wonderful. I like that we’re in bed at 8 every night.”