A California parish opens its doors to welcome and aid homeless people.
As Jose Villalobos waited for assistance outside Dolores Mission parish in Los Angeles, Calif., he was listening to sports on a radio he held on his shoulder. He said he would rather listen to sports than talk about the political corruption and lack of economic opportunities in his native Mexico.
Nearby, Manuel, who prefers to keep his last name anonymous, was lying on a cement bench reading a book. Manuel was a civil engineer in Mexico. Now he is an undocumented immigrant in the United States.
Both Jose and Manuel are homeless and for the past few months they have found shelter each night at Dolores Mission Church. The Jesuit-run parish is located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles, an area noted for its gangs, violence and large number of homeless people.
Dolores Mission first opened its doors to Salvadoran refugees fleeing their country’s violent civil war in the early 1980s. In 1986 the Jesuits of the California province who staffed the parish decided to join with local residents to address the needs in their community by establishing Proyecto Pastoral (Pastoral Project) at Dolores Mission. The project aims to empower the community through education, leadership and service and has initiated several programs to accomplish this goal. The Guadalupe Homeless Project, founded in 1988, is one of them. With financial assistance from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and private donations, and the help of hundreds of volunteers, the Guadalupe Homeless Project has become a beacon of hope each year for more than 400 men and women who have no place to stay.
The Guadalupe project operates two shelters—one for men and one for women—that offer a place to sleep, a bed, breakfast and supper daily. Participants must register for the program and adhere to its zero-tolerance policy on alcohol and drugs.
Each night the men’s shelter offers hospitality to 45 men in Dolores Mission Church. They can come here for up to three months or until they find a job or home. “This group has very good people; they helped me and welcomed me,” says Jose. Manuel adds that he is very happy and recently started a part-time job.
In 2015, the project opened a shelter two blocks away for women 55 years of age and older, who can come for up to a year. Currently, 15 women are registered, including Ana Alonso, 55. “I get along very well with all the women,” she says. “I feel that I have found peace and joy here and it feels like a family.”
“Our job is to create a caring environment and that no one feels rejected but welcome. We want them to feel like family,” says Raquel Roman, director of the Guadalupe Homeless Project. “While they are under our care, they will not lack anything. We will do our best to provide food, clothing and home.”
Case managers are available to help guests find a job and eventually make the transition to a permanent home. “It is a blessing to work with the poor,” says Veronica Mesa, a case manager who has worked with the Guadalupe project for 13 years. “Some people have the perception that bad people come here, but everyone has a story and if they are in the streets, it is because something happened in their lives and we are here to support them. Our faith community is very active and committed to social justice and they support and welcome all.”
Mesa explains that every case is different. There are people who are immigrants and find jobs quickly. Eventually they rent a place to live, buy a car and move on with their lives. Others go from one shelter to another. Some are elderly people abandoned by their own families or undocumented and it is hard to find a job for them.
A nurse from the parish is on call and refers the women and men to doctors, dentists or mental health professionals, if necessary. One day a week participants can choose clothes for free at the parish thrift shop.
The guests start arriving at the parish after 4 p.m. and can take a shower, watch television in the garage or, like Jose and Manuel, wait in the plaza until supper is prepared and served in the parish school at 6 p.m. by volunteers. More than 1,000 volunteers come every year from different states to offer their service. After dinner the women go to their shelter while the men walk to the garage, take a cot and bring it to the church.
As the 45 men enter the church, they are greeted by the smell of incense burning, an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and a missionary cross. One by one the men begin to place their cots in the middle and side aisles. They move the altar and furniture in the sanctuary to fit more cots there. Then they sit in the pews.
Tonight Deacon Leonel Yoque, a Maryknoll mission promoter who also brings volunteers to Dolores Mission, has been asked to guide the group in a prayer and blessing before they go to bed.
“We thank God and ask that tomorrow we can get up and live one more day to experience the love of God and be able to get what it takes to live a dignified life,” he prays. “We thank God for offering us a roof to sleep under and pray for our loved ones, who are part of the human family because we are all sons and daughters of God.”
Later Deacon Yoque says it is a privilege for him to share a moment with the poor. “It is an opportunity to assure them that God walks with them and listens to the cry of the suffering,” he says. “Mission Dolores is a model of a missionary parish.”
Featured Image: After eating dinner at the parish school, a homeless man drags his belongings and walks slowly to Dolores Mission Church to stay overnight. (G. Soria/U.S.)