Founded in 1976 by two Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, in a small storefront on Rose Avenue in Venice, St. Joseph Center, through its three decades of service to the community, has evolved into a multi-faceted social service agency that serves very poor, as well as homeless, families and individuals. The founders, Sister Marilyn Therese Rudy and Sister Louise Bernstein, were encouraged by Father Al Scott, who at that time was teaching Religion at St. Bernard’s High School in Playa del Rey, to explore the area of Venice as a possible site to initiate their enterprise. In July 1976, the two Sisters put their project under the patronage of St. Joseph and, with a few volunteers, began providing advocacy and referrals and assisting families with the basic needs of food, clothing, and job readiness. Services were offered without regard for religious affiliation and religious instruction was neither required nor provided. From the very beginning, the Sisters saw their task as one of renewing hope in all people and empowering them to take steps to heal their lives.
Although working with poor families and individuals was the initial thrust of St. Joseph Center, the Sisters soon recognized the growing number of homeless persons who came into the area in the early 1980’s and expanded their service by leasing a facility on nearby Rose Avenue that eventually became the Homeless Day Center. In 1986, when the founding Sisters were called to other ministries by their community, the Sisters of St. Joseph accepted the responsibility of sponsorship of St. Joseph Center as a separately incorporated non-profit 501(c)(3) entity. This relationship continues to the present day with the Provincial Council as Members who approve all significant actions of the corporation.
Even a cursory reading of St. Joseph Center’s programs gives one a sense of the evolution of services that has occurred since its humble beginnings. Utilizing Case Management as one of its core competencies both within and across programs, the agency has grown exponentially as service needs have increased. At the same time, the ten programs developed by the agency are so integrally related and supportive one to the other that they form a seamless continuums of service for the 6,000 clients who are served annually.
The Sisters’ original enterprise became what today comprises the Family Center and Food Pantry Program, which serves hundreds of low-income families with a wide range of services including supplemental groceries, case management, advocacy, and referrals. Two years after its establishment, SJC opened a Thrift Store to both generate revenue and provide low-cost clothing, furnishings, and other household items to its clients. In 1981, the Center opened a Homeless Day Center (now its Homeless Service Center) to provide emergency and long-term services to the growing numbers of homeless people on the Westside. In the last fiscal year the program served more than 2,000 homeless men, women and children with such emergency and basic services as showers, laundry, mail/messages, and advocacy. In response to the special needs of the area’s homeless and low-income elders, the Center created its Senior Services Program in 1986. Since the program’s founding client numbers have increased 15-fold. In 1997 St. Joseph Center was awarded a contract by HUD to administer an innovative program that provides outreach services to the homeless elders. Also in 1986, St. Joseph Center was awarded a contract by the county Department of Mental Health to launch its Monetary Advisory Program, which provides money management, case management and support in finding and maintaining housing to people afflicted with chronic mental illness.
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw an expansion in the Center’s ability to feed the hungry and care for families. In 1989 a building at 663 Rose Avenue in Venice was purchased to become Bread and Roses Café, one of the first three programs in the nation to combine a sit-down, table-service food program for the homeless with a food service training program for the jobless. It remains the only non-shelter hot meal program on the Los Angeles’s Westside and serves 150 meals a day in a pleasant, dignified atmosphere. In the same year, the Center opened its Child Care and Parenting Program (now the Early Learning Center) to provide nurturing kindergarten preparation and family support to 20 low-income families with preschool-age children. 1990 saw the opening of the Center’s Affordable Housing Program, which helps more than 100 formerly homeless families and individuals each year to find and maintain affordable and permanent housing. The Center opened a Food Service Job Training Program (now its Culinary Training Program) in 1991 to provide homeless, formerly homeless, and chronically unemployed adults with the skills needed to secure employment in the food service industry. Internships at UCLA, Freeman Centinela Hospital, and Saint John’s Health Center give graduates important hands-on experience, 70-80 percent of whom find permanent jobs each year.
Services for Veterans
In 1994 the Center was awarded a contract from the Social Security Administration to establish its Veterans Representative Payee Program, which provides case management, money management and housing support to homeless and low-income veterans. Two years later a second contract with the Veterans Administration established a money management program specifically aimed at homeless veterans who are dually diagnosed (i.e., those who struggle with both chronic mental illness and substance addiction). A 1997 study conducted by a UCLA Veterans Administration research psychologist, Thad Eckman, PhD, found that St. Joseph Center’s Veterans Representative Payee Program saves taxpayers $1 million annually by dramatically reducing participating veterans’ hospitalization rate.
Today and Tomorrow
The agency’s state of the art facility at 204 Hampton Drive in Venice was opened in June 2008. This facility houses the Center’s administrative offices as well as serving as the primary hub for program services ranging from our Family Center and Food Pantry to Early Learning Center to Culinary Training Program. In 2017 the agency opened a new facility in South Los Angeles to provide a base of operations for the growing number of staff who serve clients in the area.
Today SJC serves 6,500 men, women, and children annually with services designed to help them overcome obstacles and achieve self-sufficiency.
St. Joseph Center has grown into a multifaceted organization employing approximately to 180 paid staff and benefiting from the dedication of around 400 regular volunteers annually. It is a significant presence on Los Angeles’s Westside and a growing presence in South Los Angeles through its Outreach & Engagement, Housing, Mental Health, and Education & Vocational Training programs and its multiple locations. After four decades, the agency continues to respond to the wide-ranging needs of homeless and low-income families and individuals in the community with compassion and respect.