Design firm and local nonprofit partner to transform lives of homeless expectant mothers
With the holidays quickly approaching, residents at the new Harvest Home on Pico have something to be very thankful for. This new location, brought to life by a collaboration between RIOS and Harvest Home, welcomes unhoused new mothers and their babies into a safe and nurturing environment.
“The time when women come into Harvest Home is a sacred moment,” said Zantika Ellis, Harvest Home alumni resident and current case manager at the Pico location. “They intend to build a life and family. We are very proud of our homes.”
Harvest Home started on the Westside in 1985, when the founder welcomed an unhoused pregnant woman into her house. From this humble beginning, the first home was opened in Venice in 1989. From its inception, this space temporarily housed 10 women at a time and their babies.
Over the years the number of people experiencing housing insecurity has increased. In 2015, it was estimated that there were about 5,000 pregnant unhoused women in Los Angeles. Due to this surge, Harvest Home began looking to expand its capacity.
Thirty-seven years later, Harvest Home has opened its second location. Almost two-and-a-half years in the making (partly due to COVID-19 restrictions), the new Pico location welcomed its first residents in July. This new transitional facility can house up to 18 mothers and their newborns.
Potential residents first live at the Venice location for 30 to 60 days when they are given initial support. From there, women who need additional support, transition to the Pico location where they can reside until the baby is up to 6 months old.
“It is a two-step process,” Ellis said. “After the initial intake, which includes an online application, phone interview, mental health evaluation and in-person interview, we assess if they are the right fit.”
Ellis has firsthand knowledge of living at Harvest Home. She lived at the Venice location from July 2020 to January 2021.
Now working as a case manager, she mentors other women who find themselves in a similar situation.
Harvest Home provided Ellis with a place to land and prepare for her daughter to be born when she unexpectedly lost housing due to COVID-19. Now Ellis lives an independent and productive life. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is returning to school in the fall to earn a master’s degree in social work.
“We help residents get to where they want to go,” Ellis said. “We walk them through the process to help get them an education, job, career, or meet family goals. We build connections that help them back on their feet.”
The Pico location is ideally suited as a transitional housing space because it originally belonged to the archdiocese and was a nunnery. In 2018, the archdiocese asked if Harvest Home wanted the property because the nuns were retiring.
“We got a call from the Catholic Archdiocese, they didn’t know we were looking for a new space,” said Sarah Wilson, executive director of Harvest Home. “This building was well-suited for moms and babies. It is a nice space and needed some updating,”
As a former nunnery, the space offered modest single-occupancy rooms with a private sink, wash basin and closet. There is a communal bathroom with showers and a shared kitchen space downstairs. It is similar to dormitory living, which is perfect for a mother and newborn.
But it also needed updating to meet the needs of the programs including rooms for mothers with older children and making the former chapel usable for programming.
“It is not just a house, it is a program,” said Huay Wee, architect at RIOS. “They need intimate space for meetings and gatherings.”
In late fall 2019, Harvest Home supporter and commercial developer Matthew Howell connected Harvest Home with RIOS. Due to this introduction, RIOS took the project on pro bono. Wee, as a managing studio director, spearheaded the pro bono collaboration.
RIOS is an award-winning international architecture and design firm. For the past 37 years, RIOS has been transforming spaces. Based in Leimert Park, it has offices both locally and globally. Although RIOS has done other pro bono projects this is the first collaboration with Harvest Home.
RIOS donated its efforts to create a beautiful living space, both inside and outside, for new mothers and their babies. Built in 1947, the space has windows in each room, giving it a light and bright feeling. The design team chose beautiful neutral pastel colors inside the living areas to bring a sense of calmness and because they want the women to feel comfortable. The courtyard offers privacy, safety, and meets the needs of the mothers.
“It is now a lovely space,” Wee said. “There are places to connect for gatherings and education. There is an open dining room with lots of natural light and a private courtyard. We are also in the final stages of finishing up with landscaping.”
Another positive aspect of this project is that it took a community’s effort to help improve this dwelling. Besides RIOS donating their time and efforts, other vendors also offered donations and discounts. The project received donations of baby cribs, beds, lighting, tile, and carpet.
“It impacted the community we work in,” Wee said. “People are looking to make change in the world that is for the greater good.”
With the Pico facility open and increasing temporary housing, new mothers can focus on important things.
“Having a baby is stressful enough. We help the residents get everything they need to succeed and thrive,” Ellis said.