Catholic Charities opened a new center for the poor in Van Nuys on Monday, offering food, shelter and clothing to a larger-than-expected crowd of needy people, many of them homeless.
Staff members and volunteers of the Loaves and Fish Service Center were caught off guard by the turnout--more than 30 households--and worried that they would run out of food if the level continued during the next few weeks.
"We knew there is a tremendous need--that's why we opened here--but I didn't expect so many people on the first day," said Sister Christine McNamara, director of poverty programs in the San Fernando Valley for Catholic Charities.
The center is largely supported by 15 Roman Catholic churches primarily in the central and west valley. It is staffed by three paid caseworkers from Catholic Charities, which runs social service programs for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
For more than four months, volunteers have been renovating the old cinder-block building at 14525 1/2 Delano St., building shelves for the pantry and conference rooms for family counseling.
On Sunday afternoon, it was dedicated and blessed by Bishop Armando Ochoa, head of the San Fernando region of the archdiocese. The center's name refers to a Gospel passage in which Jesus Christ miraculously feeds a multitude of worshipers with seven loaves of bread and a few fish.
For this center, however, it is money, not fish, that is needed, McNamara said.
"If people keep showing up at this rate, we will be in trouble in about three weeks," she said. "We are going through food very quickly."
The center expects to provide counseling, job referrals, bus tokens and food to several hundred people a month. Homeless families are given bags of ready-to-eat food and will be able to receive emergency shelter through a hotel-voucher program in which the center participates with Los Angeles County.
However, officials said, they expected only a trickle of people the first few weeks and thought it would take time for word of their services to spread.
At the 10 a.m. opening Monday, about a dozen people managed to find the office in its out-of-the-way location--tucked in the middle of an alley behind an auto parts store. Several families in need of food had heard of the center through their church.
Rita Martinez, 23, of Sepulveda, a mother of two and expecting her third child in two weeks, came to the center for food and baby clothing. Her husband abandoned her more than a year ago, she said, and high blood pressure during her pregnancy has prevented her from working for the past nine months, pushing her onto the welfare rolls.
After paying $500 monthly rent, $187 a month is left for food, clothing and other bills, she said.
"This month, I had to buy a bed for the baby, and so we are short on money for food," Martinez said. "I buy my clothes at thrift stores and furniture at yard sales, but I wanted a new crib for my baby."
She said the two bags of groceries--packed with cereal, rice and powdered milk--will tide them over until the first of the month, when her August check comes in. "As long as I have the basic foods, I can make it last long."
About 15 of the people who filled out applications Monday wrote "none" or "park" for their work address, McNamara said. One group of five young men who live at Van Nuys-Sherman Oaks Park asked for permission to use the phone for job inquiries and for bus tokens to go to interviews, she said. Such requests can be easily handled, she said.
To receive help, people must present identification and be able to show that they are in need of assistance through documents such as rent receipts, income sources and monthly bills.