Several times since it opened in 1965, the Valley Rescue Mission in Pacoima, the oldest shelter for the homeless in the San Fernando Valley, has been on the verge of closing.
But, unlike the urban campground for the homeless that shut Friday in downtown Los Angeles, the mission operated by Sister Gloria Davis has managed to persevere as a beacon of hope for the area's destitute.
Through faith and determination, Davis, a practicing minister, has kept the facility open 22 years, outlasting temporary shelters in the face of growing demands for services and an almost constant hand-to-mouth existence.
"Make your needs known and the Lord will provide," she tells people who ask how she manages to keep the shelter going. "Sometimes, I have to pass the hat to pay a bill," she adds.
The mission, which can house 40 people, serves a growing number of families that fit into the category called "the new homeless," otherwise self-sufficient people who have fallen on hard times.
"Many have come home to find padlocks on their doors because they've fallen so far behind on their rent or their mortgage payments," Davis said.
Some have been laid off from well-paying jobs as electrical engineers or teachers, or as executives in public relations or other occupations.
"It's getting harder and harder to deal with the people," said Elva Green, Gloria Davis' 82-year-old mother, who serves as the shelter's coordinator for senior citizens. "The people we're getting are so depressed. We've had families with seven and eight children and girls with 3-week-old babies."
For the "new homeless," not having a roof over their heads is a traumatic experience, said Alice Johnson, Davis' financial manager. "Imagine picking up your kids from school and not having anyplace to take them to."
"It's the little children I feel sorriest for," Davis said. "They don't understand why they have to go hungry."
Davis and her husband, the Rev. Isaac Davis, founded the mission because of a vow made when he was floating in the Pacific during World War II after his plane was shot down.
"Right then and there, my husband made a promise to God that, if He'd save him, he would do His work for the rest of his life," Davis said. "And this is surely the Lord's work."
The Davises are ministers in the General Interdenominational Church of the First Born, which has been dubbed by some the "church with a heart." As time passed, Isaac Davis turned more and more to running the church, leaving the management of the shelter to his wife.
"On Sundays, I take a back seat to him," she said. "That's his day. He's the preacher. I don't try to preach too, although I am a preacher."
Over the years, Gloria Davis, 61, handsome and well-dressed, has been called the angel to the San Fernando Valley's destitute.
She has received commendations from Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, the Board of Supervisors and the state Legislature for her work. In July, Davis received the 14th annual Freedom Fund Award from the Valley Chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
In 1982, at the request of county officials, Davis took on the operation of two other shelters--in Compton and the Watts-Willowbrook area. The Compton facility has room for 20 homeless people. The Watts-Willowbrook shelter holds 40.
The only other overnight shelter for the homeless in the Valley is the Valley Shelter, converted from a 77-unit motel, bar and truck stop in North Hollywood and operated by the nonprofit Valley Shelter Inc. It opened April 1, 1986.
A daytime drop-in shelter for homeless women and children opened early last year on the grounds of the First Methodist Church in Van Nuys. Its co-sponsors are the church and the San Fernando Valley Friends of Homeless Women and Children.
Davis calls her three-shelter operation the Emergency Services Network and says she wants to expand because of an escalating need.
"We need bigger buildings," Davis said. "Not only are we getting more people, we're getting larger families. Some have seven or eight children. There are more girls with young babies.
"They call us from Holy Cross and Serra Memorial hospitals to see if we can take mothers with their newborn babies. We take them in if we can."
Anna Gonzalez, the mission's bilingual coordinator, said the shelter staff is forced to turn away as many as 15 families a day.
"We've seen a steady increase over the past three years," said Gonzalez, a former nurse. "We used to have more people who needed food than shelter. Now, it's the other way around."
The Valley Rescue Mission sits on park-like grounds on Terra Bella Street in Pacoima. Davis does not give out the address because she said she would have to turn away even more people. The shelter consists of a two-story house and six bungalow-style buildings furnished with cots, tables and chairs. All are near bathrooms with tubs or showers.