Union Station’s Rabbi `Marv’ serves a congregation of Pasadena’s homeless

http://www.sgvtribune.com/news/ci_22188587By Brenda Gazzar, Staff Writer

Marvin Gross at the family center for Union Station Homeless Services on Wednesday, December 12, 2012. Gross has led the influential Union Station Homeless Services in Pasadena for nearly the last 18 years. (SGVN/Photo by Walt Mancini)

PASADENA – For Rabbi Marvin Gross, leading a spiritual congregation is not unlike heading up the San Gabriel Valley’s largest social services agency helping the homeless.

Before becoming executive director of Union Station’s Homeless Services nearly 18 years ago, Gross led Reform Jewish congregations in San Francisco and Glendale.

“As a rabbi in a congregation, you’re engaged with people in their lives. You’re teaching them, working with them, accompanying them on the journey of life so to speak, somewhat similar to what I do at Union Station,” Gross, 65, said.

“I got fulfillment in both types of work. Working at Union Station has filled my heart… It’s a fundamentally important mission of helping other human beings help themselves.”

Gross believes he is the only rabbi in the country to head up an organization like Union Station. The private, secular nonprofit helps the neediest men, women and children to rebuild their lives by gaining housing, employment and life skills.

But he stresses the nonprofit is not a mission – nor does it have a specific religious doctrine.

“What’s inspiring and fantastic about Union Station, is that we are a vehicle for people of every stripe of faith, or those who are not participants in organized religion, to act out their faith or their values every day,” Gross said.

Gross, originally from Evanston, Ill., is no stranger to rolling up his sleeves. He took a break from college to pick vegetables and work with dairy cows on two Israeli kibbutzim after the Six Day War. He was a campaign staffer for Father Robert Drinan when the Jesuit priest in 1970 successfully ran for U.S. Congress in Massachusetts. Gross also worked on behalf of Vietnam Veterans in Boston and as a community organizer in Chicago before becoming a rabbi.

Union Station, which today has nearly 80 staff members, was first founded in 1973 when Alice Callaghan and All Saints Church volunteers opened a hospitality center on Union Street to serve poor and homeless men. In subsequent decades, it opened shelters, transitional housing and eventually began providing career development, medical as well as mental health services.

Under his leadership, Gross has taken the organization to the next level, putting together an expert board and a staff skilled in meeting the growing demands of the homeless, said Joe Colletti, founder of the Pasadena Housing and Homeless Network.

“I can think back when Union Station just focused on single individuals,” Colletti said. “Under Marv’s tenure, Union Station has been able to focus on not just individuals but families as well … He didn’t just provide a vision for the organization, but he was able to anchor it.”

Gross ushered in a major expansion starting in 2000 to help the organization cope with a dramatic rise in the number of homeless families. Today, the nonprofit serves some 4,000 people a year and has six major programs at its five Pasadena facilities.

Those include a 50-bed family shelter on Orange Grove Boulevard and an expanded adult shelter on Raymond Avenue that includes a 20-bed women’s dormitory. Union Station also provides 142 units of permanent supportive housing for singles at Centennial Place near City Hall.

In its latest endeavour, the nonprofit has partnered with the city and the low-income housing developer National Community Renaissance to construct 20 permanent housing apartments with supportive services for formerly homeless families. This project, to be located at the northwest corner of Union Street and Mar Vista Avenue, would be the first of its kind in Pasadena.

While the City Council has voted to allocate $4.8 million in redevelopment dollars to the project, city officials are fighting to be able to use those funds in light of the state’s recent elimination of redevelopment agencies. The project, however, was recently awarded $1.4 million from the First Five Commission and the developer is also seeking additional funding sources, city officials said.

“We’re hoping for a positive outcome,” Gross said.

Among those touched by Union Station is Christopher Johnson, a formerly homeless man who transitioned from a sober living facility to Centennial Place in 2009.

Once Union Station began providing support services for tenants there including social programs and activities, transportation and access to a doctor, Johnson said, “it made it feel like a true home.”

And when Johnson’s social security benefits were interrupted in January, Union Station provided him with a short-term loan to help him make ends meet, he said.

“It’s not just Marv – but the entire Union Station staff – if I had to describe them in one word, it’s compassionate,” Johnson said.

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