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A Sanctuary and Starting Place

A nonprofit organization plans a center to help young immigrants make the transition from foster homes or the streets to independence. It will serve as both home and school.


When thousands of Central American refugee children fled the war and bloodshed of the 1980s in their homelands, they were sent to Los Angeles with specific instructions:

Go to Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church, the little downtown chapel better known as La Placita (the little plaza). Wait there, and a friend or relative will find you. Wait there, and someone will come take care of you.

Often no one did.

Eventually, so many illegal immigrants and homeless refugee children flocked to the church that Father Luis Olivares, then its pastor, declared his parish a sanctuary.

Olivares' actions angered government authorities and irritated church superiors. Even so, the controversial ministry to immigrants and refugees served as an inspiration to Olivares' associate pastor and close friend, Father Richard Estrada.

Olivares died of AIDS in 1993 after being injected with an unsterilized needle on a visit to Central American refugee camps.

Following in his mentor's path, in 1991 Estrada founded Jovenes Inc., a nonprofit organization for homeless immigrant teenagers and young adults in downtown, Chinatown, Echo Park, Lincoln Heights, Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles.

Expanding on Olivares' call to designate sanctuaries for homeless immigrants, Jovenes, which is Spanish for young people, recently purchased a building in Boyle Heights that will become a shelter for young men 16 to 22 years old.

The center will serve not only as a residence, but also as an education and career center to help the young people move from the streets or foster care into independent life.

Plans for the two-story building include 12 beds, a kitchen and living room area, classrooms, a computer lab, an art studio and a community garden. The building was christened at an open house and fund-raising brunch last week as the Olivares/Pleasant Avenue Center and is scheduled to open in March, the 10th anniversary of the establishment of Jovenes.

"I feel like I've come full circle," Estrada said. "I feel like we're going back to where we first started. When I was at La Placita and I saw all those kids coming in there--lost, confused--it was like a calling. Now maybe these kids I'm helping today are the children or grandchildren of the people who were at La Placita in the 1980s. Who knows?

"I wanted to name the center after Olivares because he gave us an example," Estrada said. "He brought people together. He trusted people. He gave them the church as a home. I want to remind people that his work continues."

When Estrada started Jovenes, there were only a few groups assisting homeless immigrant children in the area. Most of the shelters and agencies serving homeless teenagers were based in Hollywood, where it was believed all the homeless youths lived. Other agencies were unable to deal with the language difficulties and legal complexities of helping illegal immigrants.

"Back then, we were just bringing this stuff to the surface that street kids aren't only in Hollywood," he said. "They don't all come here to be stars. They're not all drug addicts and alcoholics. Many come to escape poverty and violence in their countries. They come to work."

Estrada believes that when immigrant youths enter Southern California, mainly from Latin America and Asia, they fall into a pattern. Lucky ones find relatives or friends from their home countries who will help. Others run into trouble with the law and land in an Immigration and Naturalization Service detention center or juvenile hall. From the detention centers, teenagers are placed in the foster care system. Most of the rest become homeless.

Although the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services often succeeds in finding temporary homes for immigrant youths, problems arise again after teenagers turn 18 and are emancipated from the foster-care system.

If they have no adults to live with or jobs to support themselves, there is only the street.

According to a recent study, there are 272 transitional housing beds available for about 1,000 youths emancipated from foster care in Los Angeles County every year. About 45% become homeless the first year.

Estrada hopes to strike a partnership with the children's department to make referrals for youths who would like to enter the Olivares Center.

"Those are the kids who need help. They're a silent group," he said. "They're totally unprepared for the world, and there aren't many organizations out there who want to help them."

Being executive director of Jovenes is a full-time job. For that reason Estrada is a rare breed of priest. He is not officially pastor of any church, but celebrates Mass in Spanish every Sunday at San Conrado Mission. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is not affiliated with Jovenes but silently supports the center's work. The relationship is rare in many ways, but for Estrada it works.

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