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The divide at El Camino Real

The St.

The divide at El Camino Real
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In this city just south of San Francisco a four-lane El Camino Real divides rich from poor. On one side, a Maserati dealership. On the other, windows draped with bedroom sheets and rusted cars parked on lawns. The poor side of the royal highway is "a pretty rough area," says Hector Acosta, a deputy sheriff: "Methamphetamine is the most prevalent drug, a lot of intoxicated people."

Just blocks from a zip code of wealth and distinction, red tennis shoes hang from the telephone line above a vacant lot. They mark the territory of Nortenos, a prominent gang. Across the street Sister Christina Heltsley glances up and then enters the St. Francis Center of Redwood City, which she serves as executive director. The 20-year-old center, when open, provides a safe haven for families torn apart by drugs, gangs, and poverty. (It closes for a month during July and August and for two weeks in December.)

"My hope is that people feel welcome; we don't all start from the same place, and some need more help than others," said Heltsley. She walked through the cluttered living room to the tidy kitchen and stated that the center provides food to as many as 2,500 people each month. She also said the center gives away 19,000 bags of clothes each year.

The center houses a K-5 private school that requires mothers of enrolled children to attend once-a-week classes in subjects including catechesis, English, and preparation for GED and citizenship exams. The St. Francis Center owns a recently remodeled 24-unit apartment complex next door to it and charges $475 per month for a studio apartment or $598 for a one-bedroom; area rentals for such housing are often $1,300 per month.

The three-story, pale green apartment building, with its red brick walkway and barbeque area, is clean and gated; residents, Heltsley insists, "can't be a member of a gang and this community: They must chose their membership."

The St. Francis Center has a low profile in much of Redwood City: More than 20 local officials, church leaders, and residents questioned by WORLD were unaware of it, but Acosta said, "On a daily basis there are people lined up there, they do help a lot of people." City human services representative Teri Chin called it "a very valuable resource for mostly low-income families in our community."

The center plans a new, $4.7 million, 10,000-square-foot building that, according to Heltsley, will be a self-sustaining, "green" structure.


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