St. Francis Center welcomes new director

There is a little street south of downtown. The buildings of the city center cut out the skyline to the north; the blue line light rail runs perpendicular to the south. On this two-block chunk of Hope Street, food insecure families and homeless people gather several times a week, all turning to help from St. Francis Center, a nonprofit that aims to feed and assist the needy.

imageBut on Sunday, Jan. 23, a different crowd gathered at St. Francis. The center was filled with people dressed in their Sunday best and traveled from all over Los Angeles. They were donors, friends and family, there to attend a celebratory mass and brunch in honor of the new Executive Director, Jill Remelski, and the transition of the former Executive Director to the President of the Board of Directors, Gerald A. Gumbleton.

Remelski came to St. Francis Center in summer of 2002, when she was an undergrad studying business at the University of Southern California.

“I had plenty of opportunities to get a job downtown,” said Remelski. “But I didn’t feel that I was going to love going to work everyday. I wanted to love to go to work.”

The center offers a variety of programs to help feed the needy. Its soup kitchen is open to the homeless six days a week, and its Family Food Distribution program provides families with bags of free groceries every week.

Remelski says that her motivation stems from the relationships she has built with the people who come into the center.

“That’s always been really interesting,” said Remelski. “Because when you see someone on the street, you don’t think about, that person has a mother, that person has a father, or they might have kids who are worried about them. It’s interesting to think about the human that is there, and that we don’t really treat the homeless as people.”

The center started as a Franciscan Friars outreach program in 1972. The first parishioners gathered extra food from their own pantries and gave them to the homeless.

Today, the center has grown and offers 100,000 meals a year to the hungry and provides groceries to 300 unique families every week. Though it is still loosely affiliated with the Franciscan Friars, the center receives no resources from the church.

Gumbleton has been with the organization for over 30 years. After years of training Remelski, Gumbleton is officially transitioning to Chair of the Board of Directors, a fundraising role.

“My goal is to raise enough money to support Jill, so that she can be successful,” said Gumbleton. But Gumbleton is careful to not measure success exclusively in numbers. “The emphasis is not the number that we serve, our emphasis is in the way that we serve them, treating each person with dignity.”

Remelski hopes to provide more comprehensive services in the years to come. For example, she hopes to hire a full-time advocate for the families and the homeless. Remelski says that landlords take advantage of families with illegal members, using their immigration status as leverage to avoid meeting minimum requirements. She hopes an advocate will be able to get them in touch with the right opportunities and organization.

“It’s not an opportunity for us to recreate the wheel and do things that other organizations in the area are already doing, it’s just a chance to be able to direct them to the right spot and introduce them to the right people so they can feel that trust with those organizations that they feel with us,” said Remelski.

Among her other plans, Remelski wants to help families get on food stamps and expand the center’s hygiene program, which provides showers, clean clothes and toiletries to the homeless.

Photographs from the St. Francis Center:

The center operates off of private donations and grants from foundations, with a small federal grant. The grant is from FEMA, because homelessness is considered a national emergency, and makes up $40,000 of the center’s $900,000 budget.

Gumbleton says the last four years have been touch and go. The center doesn’t have an endowment, so they raise the money year by year.

“We can do whatever we want, if we have enough money for the programs,” said Remelski. “We do what we can with what we have.”

Remelski says that the recession has fueled individual donations, as hard times make individuals more aware of hunger and food insecurity.

For Remelski, working at St. Francis has given her a new perspective on her own waste. She says she no longer will throw out food just because it’s beyond the expiration date, if it still smells and tastes fine.

“It’s not just a job, and none of our employees treat it like it’s just a job,” she said. “That’s what really makes the difference.”

Gumbleton echoed this sentiment.

“[The homeless are] my life,” he said. “I love what I do and I continue to do it. I only do what I like to do. I’ve never done anything for more than 15 minutes after I did not enjoy it.”

More stories about food issues in South Los Angeles:

Los Angeles school cafeterias boast healthier options

Experts discuss the ‘politics of food’ in South L.A.

Food Not Bombs takes alternative approach to feeding homeless