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Homeless mothers and children find a lifeline at Hope Gardens

Photos by Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Lilly Earp, 8, changes the diaper of her five-week-old sister Emily, Jan. 25, 2012, in their apartment at Hope Gardens Family Center, a homeless shelter for women and children, run by Union Rescue Mission on 77 acres of countryside on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Calif.

By Lucy Nicholson, Reuters photojournalist

Lilly Earp changes the diaper on her 5-week-old baby sister Emily with the confidence another child would have cradling a doll. She's only 8, but she already shows the street smarts of an older child as she helps her mother. It helps to be resourceful when you're homeless.

Her mother, Doreen Earp, 38, who is originally from Germany, and her three children ended up on the street after her relationship with Emily’s father fell apart. They stayed in a hotel for a month, then with people from their church and eventually ended up with no roof over their heads.

Children attend an after-school class at Hope Gardens Family Center. One in 45 children, totalling 1.6 million, is homeless, the highest number in United States' history, according to a 2011 study by the National Center on Family Homelessness.

A child's drawing is seen on the wall of the center.

Today, they're lucky to be among the 150 or so homeless women and children living at Hope Gardens on the outskirts of LA. It's a place where those at the end of the line are given a life line.

The shelter for families is an oasis compared to where most of LA's massive street population lives on a grim patch of downtown's Skid Row. While homeless services are concentrated downtown, it's no place for a child.

Doreen Earp, 38, of Germany looks at her five-week-old daughter Emily in their apartment at Hope Gardens Family Center.

The number of homeless children is at an all-time high in the United States. One in 45 children, totaling 1.6 million, is currently homeless, according to a 2011 study by the National Center on Family Homelessness. California is ranked the fifth highest state in the nation for its percentage of homeless children. An increasing number of children are dependent on poverty-stricken single moms.

The Earps are amongst 45 mothers, 96 children, and 24 elderly women being helped by Hope Gardens, a homeless shelter for women and children, run by Union Rescue Mission on 77 acres (0.31 square km) of countryside on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Elizabeth Lepe, 26, (left to right) Nancy Jimenez, 35, and Sheriill Stubblefield, 31, laugh during a therapy session at Hope Gardens Family Center.

The mothers are given therapy, and classes in life skills, parenting, financial planning, and encouraged to apply for further education, so they can get more than minimum wage jobs. They can stay at the center for up to three years if they’re in college.

All the children attend after-school classes, and the teenagers are taught about domestic violence, job interviews, how to have healthy relationships, and how to communicate better.

Kids grow up fast when they lose the safety and comforts of home.

Earp's 10-year-old daughter Lindzy overhears a woman telling her mother that she is going to an NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meeting. Lindzy persists in quizzing her mother about what that means. After hearing her explain it as simply a class, the girl retorts: “I know what NA is. I just wanted to see what you would say.”

These moments of maturity are eclipsed by the normal trappings of childhood at the shelter – the games and toys that replace those the children lost with their homes.

Doreen nurses her newborn as her older daughters run and shriek in the playground with other children. Birds chirp in the surrounding pine trees. A stream gurgles into a koi pond.

“They’re able to be kids here,” she says.

Lindzy Earp (2nd right), 10, plays in the playground at Hope Gardens Family Center.

See more of Lucy Nicholson's picture story about Hope Gardens and an earlier set of photos of an after-school tuition program for homeless kids.