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A Gift of Dignity for the Homeless

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eighty poor immigrants are living in their own apartments instead of on the streets this Christmas because a priest and his parish decided that it takes more than charitable donations to conquer homelessness.

Exactly one year ago, Dolores Mission and La Placita churches, the two traditional and overburdened refuges for Los Angeles’ homeless Latino immigrants, issued a call to other churches in the city’s crowded core to open their doors to those with no place else to go.

At St. Vincent Church near downtown, the question was put to a vote of its 5,000 worshipers--a congregation of mostly low-income and poor immigrants. When the votes were tallied, 97% had chosen to create a refuge within the church’s walls.

Known as Refugio San Vicente, the shelter is celebrating its first anniversary this month, an occasion recently marked with a Mass attended by the dozens of men who have lived there. Standing amid the regal trappings of the ornate cathedral, they told the standing-room-only crowd--including the 10 men who reside there now--of how the shelter has transformed their lives.

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“You didn’t give me a job, but what you gave me was dignity--the gift of believing in myself again,” said a grateful Javier Lopez, who saved enough money while at the shelter to rent his own apartment.

Father Mike Crotty points to the successful first year of Refugio San Vicente as proof that a very un-church-like program can work in almost any church, if the congregation is committed.

“Imagine if every one of the 40 or 50 churches in this area took in 10 people, then 10 more, then 10 more,” said Crotty, noting that he hopes other churches will follow St. Vincent’s lead.

“We could take care of this city’s homeless immigrant problem,” he said. “That’s our message to everyone this Christmas.”

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The shelter houses 10 men at a time for a maximum of 90 days. They live in the wood-paneled sacristy, where garments for church services were once kept. Each man is assigned a tall oak locker once used by the altar boys.

Each morning, the men head out to jobs or to favorite corners to wait for day work. And each night, a different church family--usually from the ranks of the poor or low-income--brings the men a free home-cooked dinner.

“Our families are poor themselves, but they are happy to provide one dinner each to help the men at our shelter,” said Sister Diane Donoghue. “We even get a hot meal once a month from families at Ward African Methodist Church because they wanted to join us when they heard about it.”

A close-knit spirit pervades the comfortable shelter, where the men jostle one another in light moments and talk, in sadder moments, of faraway relatives. These men, mostly from major cities in Mexico or El Salvador, are among the many thousands of illegal aliens in Los Angeles who came here desperate to change their economic situation.

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“All of the guys are here with the right intentions--to work and send a little money home,” said Jose Satrustequi, the shelter’s manager. “Within three days, they know west, east, south and north, and how to take a bus from East L.A. to Santa Monica. These are city people who know how to survive. But even for them, life on the streets is very bad.”

Most of them admit to having believed the fantastic stories they heard back home about Los Angeles--a place where fortunes are supposedly made every day.

They instead discovered a city of high rents and steep competition for the carpenter and tile-laying jobs they had hoped to find.

“Everyone told me that you can sweep the dollars from the floor,” said Juan Aranda, a native of Mexico City who arrived in Los Angeles this year. “Now I see it is entirely different, and I want to go back, but it will cost me a great deal of money that I don’t have.”

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Others believe opportunities in Los Angeles are still far better than those at home.

“After being here five years . . . I don’t want to go back because it would be impossible to recapture what I had there,” said Amilcar Carranza.

Carranza, an artist, was city librarian for a town of 20,000 in El Salvador, but fled to the United States after a co-worker disappeared without a trace, a probable victim of death squads, he said.

Now a muralist for the church and co-manager of the shelter, Carranza said: “My work goes well, and I am thankful. Los Angeles is my home now.”

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The goal of the shelter is to help the men save enough money to get permanent housing. But they also receive emotional enrichment each night when they stand in a circle to clasp hands and pray.


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