MONROVIA — Cynthia Arnold has been supplementing her monthly $670 welfare check with food from the Monrovia Unity Center for three years.
"I don't know what I'd do" if the center closed, said Arnold, 29, the single parent of a 5-year-old daughter suffering from acute asthma.
Like thousands of others, Arnold may soon be forced to look elsewhere for the food, clothing and legal advice she has been receiving at the center.
Officials at Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church, where the center is housed, have asked the nonprofit center to leave by Aug. 1.
Father John Foley, pastor at Immaculate Conception for 14 years, said there are a number of reasons the center is being asked to leave.
Parishioners have seen some recipients exchanging food for drugs, he said. Other recipients have wandered onto the grounds of an adjacent school run by the church and one student's bicycle was stolen, Foley said.
Two robberies at the church within the past two months were "the final straws" that convinced him the center had to go, he said.
"I don't have anybody to guard the place," Foley said, adding that he has been urging center Director Josephine Anderson to find a location with better facilities for at least a year, partly because he needs more space for his own parishioners.
The center was started by the church in 1982. Although the church still provides $15,000 a year, the center has become a separate nondenominational entity, parish Administrator Bob Sheehy said.
The center, which pays no rent, receives about $30,000 in cash, food, clothing and furniture from 13 other churches and service organizations including the Kiwanis, Elks and Rotary. Even so, the center needs about $1,000 to pay outstanding food bills, Anderson said.
"We're not giving up on the poor, but charity begins at home, and other churches should take (some) responsibility," Foley said.
The Monrovia-Duarte Board of Realtors, a center supporter for five years, and the City Council are searching for a new location, Anderson said.
But no site has been found, she said.
Some members of the clergy worry that their churches cannot tackle the problems of the needy as comprehensively as the center.
"Local churches just aren't equipped," said the Rev. Ted Hampton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of Monrovia. His church stopped distributing food when the center opened, and instead began sending food it collected to the center.
One concern, Hampton said, is that without one distribution point, some aid recipients might start making the rounds of several churches for food, which was a problem before the center started.
Virginia Speer, assistant administrator at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, said "a lot of us in town are upset" that the center might close.
"There's no other source" offering such broad services in Monrovia, said Speer, whose congregation brings in food for the center one Sunday a month.
With a paid staff of two, occasional volunteers from 14 churches and some aid recipients who help out, the center has helped served 10,641 people with food or other services in the last 12 months, Anderson said.
Anderson, who has headed the operation since its creation, warns that the community will suffer in the long run if the problems of the needy are not addressed now.
"I close down and it's all your ballgame . . . and it's going to be hardball," she said about the city.
The center distributes food on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. About 20 people receive food each time, but the flow becomes heavier toward the end of the month when welfare money starts running out, Anderson said.
Stacks of soap, canned meat and jars of marshmallow cream line the shelves of the center's pantry. Nearby are bags of rice, bins of candy bars for and shopping carts piled high with bread from Lucky, Safeway and Ralphs supermarkets and the Monrovia Bakery. The bread is left on tables in a courtyard after 1 p.m. every day.
"People start wandering around" after picking up the bread, she said. "Last year, prowlers started becoming a problem, coming out at night to get the bread and sleeping" on the grounds, she said.
Anderson said she realizes the danger factor, but emphasized that nothing serious has ever happened.
A $2,500 spray-paint pump was recently taken from a garage at the church, she said. And a youth who had been coming to the center for more than a year strapped a leaf-blower onto his back and walked away less than a month ago, she said. Anderson chased the youth and retrieved the leaf-blower. The youth said he intended to return it after making some money.
In her small office crammed with files and documents about the recipients, the 59-year-old grandmother of 14 said: "I've gotten more out of this than the people I've helped. . . . I've gotten such an education from the people coming in here."
Anderson said the anxiety over finding a new location and $1,000 for unpaid food bills "makes me old." But she added, "I'm a fighter. I'll find something."