By Eileen Connelly, OSU

Hope. It’s reflected everywhere at St. Francis Center, from the ministry’s mission to feed, serve and walk with the poor to its physical address on South Hope Street in Los Angeles.  

The center has been a beacon of hope for more than 50 years, providing programs and services to the unhoused and low-income individuals and families. Its beginnings were humble – the result of a friar who saw the needs around him and responded with compassion.  

While serving at St. Joseph Church, the late Br. Hugh Noonan, OFM, encountered an increasing number of people requesting food and assistance. The parish operated a small food pantry, but Br. Hugh felt called to do more. He established St. Francis Center in 1972, serving coffee and donuts and distributing clothing to those in need.  

Two inspiring volunteers also played key roles: Helen Payne, who sought donations from local bakers and served as the center’s treasurer, and Juanita Vaughn, who was so touched by the migrant workers who emigrated from northern Mexico that she learned to speak Spanish in order to better communicate with guests.

In 1993, SFC became incorporated as a 501(c)(3), and the board purchased the current building, located just a few blocks away from the original location at St. Joseph Church. 

A person with shoulder-length blonde hair and a black beanie hat serves food to people sitting at a round table in a dining room

A volunteer serves a hot meal during SFC’s breakfast program. Warm meals and sack lunches are offered to guests six days a week. (Photo courtesy of St. Francis Center)

Volunteers wearing red shirts and blue plastic gloves sort boxes of fruit.

Volunteers create Pantry Program boxes consisting of fresh produce and nutritious groceries. Guests who cannot physically come to St. Francis Center for food can have a box delivered to them weekly, thanks to a partnership from DoorDash. (Photo courtesy of St. Francis Center)

Tailoring programs for the community 

From its simple beginnings, SFC has grown to offer hope in countless ways. 

“We serve folks from all walks of life,” said Jasmine Bravo, executive director. “Our mission to feed, serve and walk with the poor in the spirit of St. Francis resonates with us daily. The values of our patron saint are very real here. We live by those values, we walk with our guests, we build community with them.” 

The Family Well Being Program, for example, offers pantry services that replicate a grocery store shopping experience, providing items such as fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and dairy products. People who are immunocompromised, elderly or disabled can have a pantry box delivered to their homes each week, thanks to a partnership with DoorDash. SFC’s partner agencies offer satellite pantry locations to address food insecurity in other areas of Los Angeles. 

Warm meals and sack lunches are provided six days a week through SFC’s breakfast program, in addition to hygiene services: clothing and personal care items, and a place to shower. A partnership with The Laundry Truck LA offers mobile laundry services to the local unhoused community.  

The resource services team provides tools geared toward improving lives beyond immediate crisis intervention and making successful transitions from homelessness to stable housing. Services include referrals for healthcare, assistance with shelter, housing, rent and utilities, job preparedness and financial literacy classes. Guests also receive an address and a mailbox, along with access to computers, phones and voicemail.  

There’s also the Tuesday Diaper Program that offers monthly assistance with baby supplies to enrolled families. 

A friar holds up a peace sign in front of a beautiful, intricate mural of St. Francis sharing bread with a leper as forest creatures watch.

St. Francis Center encourages its guests to share their gifts with the community. After learning a guest was an artist, Br. Victor Vega invited him to paint a mural on the center's wall. (Photo courtesy of St. Francis Center)

Two smiling people hold up the key to a building. They are standing in front of a white concrete wall.

Danielle Rayner, left, associate director, and Jasmine Bravo, executive director at St. Francis Center, hold up the key to the ministry’s new space, directly adjacent to the current building. The new space, acquired in June 2023, will allow the center to expand its services. (Photo courtesy of St. Francis Center)

Creating a loving environment for guests to thrive 

SFC is continuing to grow: it's planning to add additional programs for youth, and it recently acquired a building adjacent to its current location. As SFC expands, its ministry remains firmly rooted in Franciscan values and Br. Hugh’s original vision to care for people in need.  

“We’re here to provide for them. We see and believe in the good in everyone,” said Danielle Rayner, associate director. “This means getting to know their coffee order and watching their kids grow up. It’s very much about community here and getting to know our guests on a deeper level than other non-profits do. Folks that come here experience the loving environment and are able to get past the stigma that it might be embarrassing to ask for help. We don’t see it that way.”  

Br. Victor Vega, OFM, chaplain, agrees. “We just try to welcome them and be sure they know they are accepted here. We’re not only serving them but being with them.”  

He was drawn to ministry there three years ago out of a desire to “work with the poor, those most in need. I do a little bit of everything,” he said. “It involves a ministry of presence, of spiritual guidance. I work on mission integration with the staff and give talks about Franciscan spirituality. I offer prayers and spiritual counseling to our guests that want it.  

“I also work to build relationships with the guests, and after I get to know them, I encourage them to use their talents to help others,” he added. “One of our guests is a local artist and I invited him to paint a mural on a wall here that shows St. Francis with all of creation around him.”  

“I receive so many blessings from the guests,” Br. Victor said. “Hearing their stories and seeing their deep faith in God inspires me every day.” 

A person distributes packages of diapers to waiting families and their children

SFC's Program Supervisor Ashley Alvarenga distributes supplies during the Tuesday Diaper Program that provides monthly assistance to young families.  (Photo courtesy of St. Francis Center)

A woman wearing a Santa hat with the word

Toys are distributed to families during SFC’s Christmas gift-wrapping event. (Photo courtesy of St. Francis Center)

Breaking barriers and building community 

The success stories from SFC are deeply inspiring. H came to them last year, six months pregnant with her first child. She was renting an apartment in LA’s Skid Row area and working part-time due to her pregnancy. Struggling to make ends meet, H was facing eviction by her landlord and the challenges of the city’s rental market.  

Wanting a better life for her child, H qualified for Section 8 and found an apartment in a better area, but even with her voucher, the move-in amount was an outrageous $4,500. With assistance from SFC, H was able to pay the costs, and was also enrolled in the pantry and diaper programs. She gave birth to a baby girl in October, and the little family is now enjoying the security and comfort of their new apartment.  

Outcomes like this wouldn’t be possible without the compassion and dedication of the SFC team. Volunteers play a vital role in their mission, noted Danielle, whether they are engaging directly with guests, helping to sort donations or assisting with administrative tasks.  

“The beauty of our team, both volunteers and staff, is that they really love coming here and catching up with the guests,” Jasmine said. “Volunteers can start as young as eight years old. They’ll grow up understanding that guests aren’t unhoused for the reasons they may have thought of. Many of our guests stay connected and return to volunteer or work here. It’s amazing to see children and adults with full hearts ready to give back to the community and set an example for their family and friends.”  

St. Francis Center is located at 1835 S. Hope St., Los Angeles, CA 90015. For more information about St. Francis Center, visit