At 9:30 Tuesday morning, a line of 20 people formed outside a run-down storefront building in Pacoima. Some pressed their faces against the glass door, peering inside at bins and boxes filled with food and used clothing.
One woman, holding a toddler in her arms, slipped to the front of the door, softly pushed it open and asked in Spanish: "Do you have any bread for breakfast this morning?" She was given a bag of bagels, which she immediately opened, giving one to her small son and taking another for herself.
"How do you say, 'No, not now,' when someone asks for bread?" said Joan Gartlan, as she watched the woman and child on the sidewalk, munching on the bagels.
The scene is often repeated on weekday mornings at the office of an organization called Meet Each Need With Dignity, or MEND. Sometimes 30 or 40 wait in line, sometimes 10 or 12.
Seeking Food, Clothes
All are seeking goods they say they are unable to afford elsewhere: a free sack of food and a bag of old clothes for 25 cents.
The program started 14 years ago with a stack of used clothing for the needy that was stored in the garage of a Mission Hills resident. It has slowly grown into one of the most active emergency-needs organizations in the San Fernando Valley, with 200 volunteers who distributed food, clothing and furniture to more than 7,000 people last year.
English classes, which attract mostly women who live within walking distance of the MEND building, have swelled over the past two years to about 175 students in each six-week session.
Organization leaders said their ability to expand their services has resulted from increased donations over the years and additional volunteers like Gartlan, who give hours of their time collecting food, sorting clothing and delivering groceries.
Now, however, leaders are grappling with a different kind of task. While continuing their programs for the poor in the northeast Valley, somehow they have to come up with $97,000 by April 7 for a down payment to buy an old drapery-cleaning building they occupy in the 13400 block of Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima.
The partly renovated building, leaders say, has become the "bedrock" of the organization, with its classrooms, storage facility and modest office space.
'Nowhere Else to Go'
"It took a lot of agonizing, a lot of soul searching. It's an extraordinary thing for us to even consider buying a building," said Bob vonFrankenberg of Northridge, MEND director.
"But we looked at every other building for rent in the area and they were all in bad shape," VonFrankenberg said. "Basically, there was nowhere else to go. If we wanted to remain a part of this community, we had to take the plunge. This was it."
When notified in December by property owners that someone else had made an offer to buy the building, the organization's leaders were given 15 days to decide whether to buy the building themselves or move out.
Supported largely by donations from members of seven Roman Catholic churches in the northeast Valley, the group has never sought financial help from the United Way, private foundations or even the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
"No pastor runs us; we are not a parish organization. We have never had to ask for help from the government," said Ed Rose, one of the founders. "We want to be our own organization and draw our strength from the people in this Valley."
So they are asking about 1,500 people who have consistently sent checks over the years to give more money for the building fund. They have put together a black binder with snapshots and descriptions of their work and with photocopied endorsement letters from local priests, ministers and politicians, and are taking it to Valley business people in hopes of obtaining support.
With the deadline nearing, $16,000 has arrived in the mail. One anonymous supporter, whom treasurer Bill Lipps described as a "prominent Valley businessman," has promised to donate half of the down payment--$48,500--if the organization can raise the other half in community support.
So what is the contingency plan if the remaining $32,500 fails to materialize in less than a month?
"Well, I'll just have to take out a second mortgage on my house," Lipps said. "We have been in the community just long enough where we are starting to accomplish more than just Band-Aid help. If we lose the building, we'll lose our foothold in the community."
MEND is one of at least 10 religious-oriented organizations in the San Fernando Valley supported by private donations and volunteer workers who run food pantries, find shelter or give clothing to people who feel that they have nowhere else to turn for help.
Many of the people served are illegal immigrants, officials from several organizations said. MEND officials estimate that perhaps 80% of the people they help would not be able to prove they are legal residents if they were asked.
"But, whether they are here legally or not, that's not our concern," Lipps said. "I have had more than one person tell me that they wouldn't contribute because it would mean that they are condoning illegal immigration.
"Well, we believe that Christian ethics tell us that, if someone needs help, you help them. And that's what we do."
Problem 'a Huge Ocean'
Although each organization--from the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry to Lutheran Social Services to the Salvation Army--gives groceries and temporary shelter to hundreds and even thousands of the hungry and homeless, "the problem is like a huge ocean and MEND, like the rest of us, are trying to fight it with a little bucket," said Capt. John Purdell of the Salvation Army in Van Nuys.
"When people drive down Van Nuys Boulevard or San Fernando Road, they never see the poverty," said Sister Becky Gaba, MEND administrator. "They see the little stucco houses on the side streets but not the sheds and porches in the back where people are renting because there is no other housing available. There is very little we can do about the housing problems and the homeless."
Studies indicate that most of the Valley's estimated 4,000 to 10,000 homeless wander through the communities of San Fernando, Pacoima, North Hollywood, Sylmar and Van Nuys.
"If so many people don't have shelter in our area, we can only imagine how many more don't have enough food or enough clothing," said Helen Gallarza of Pacoima, who works every weekday morning sorting through sack after sack of used clothing for MEND. "I believe there are people who literally dress themselves from here."
About 12 people at a time are allowed inside the small clothing store. They must have a referral from a local church or show identification listing their name and address, a utility bill or driver's license.
Women stuff boxes with nightgowns, sheets, baby clothes and T-shirts. One young man, Santiago Rios, 19, carried a green trash bag with clothes for his mother and a few shirts for himself.
"I'm not working right now because I am going to the West Valley Occupational Center to learn auto upholstery," Rios said. "My mother, she's a housekeeper and she is working right now. She said they told her at church we could get clothes here. So I told her I would come by in the morning."
When the people leave the cramped little store, they stop at the front and set down their boxes and sacks as if they were at a checkout stand. There Joan Gartlan gives them a bag of hot-dog buns, a carton of cottage cheese, a couple of lemons--whatever food has been brought in that morning.
By the afternoon, a new group of volunteers arrives to make deliveries to people who have asked for food to feed their families over a period of several days. The feeling is that, if a worker can deliver the food, he or she not only will be able to see if the family truly is needy, but also will be able to visit for a while with someone who is isolated both physically and culturally.
On one such visit, Stella McDonald and Sherry Panec arrived at a neat stucco home, a block from a San Fernando downtown shopping plaza. They were looking for Apt. C. The front house had no markings. The back door had a metal "B" nailed to it.
A wooden shed in the back had a "C" hand-painted on the side of the wall.
Three Live in Shed
Rosa Martinez Reyes lives in the shed with her two school-age daughters. They have two beds, a table and a stove that also serves as a heater. An electrical extension cord runs from the front house into the shed. There is a cement floor and there is brown dry wall on the ceiling.
Reyes said she had worked for two years as a seamstress in a Pacoima factory but several weeks ago was told to stop coming to work.
Tears began to well in Reyes' eyes.
"It was painful to have to ask for food," she said. "But it was necessary for the girls. They need to eat. I am looking for work. Then we will be able to have food again."