SAN LEANDRO -- Alejandra Ellis is not the first mom to want to stay home to raise her kids in their early years. But for her, that means reducing her family's income to the point where getting food on the table and diapers on the baby doesn't come easy.

The Davis Street Family Resource Center since 2008 has afforded her that opportunity, filling the needs left unfilled by federal assistance programs and her husband's Safeway income, she said.

"No one can raise your kids and love them like you can," said Ellis, 30, who is raising a 4-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son with her husband of seven years. "Even if you work a lot, (if) you don't have a college education and you have a family of four and then rent, you barely scrape by. It's shocking and sad. ... Throw the holidays on top of it, and it's like, oh man, what are we going to do?"

Alejandra Ellis with her children in the toy donation room at the Davis Street Family Resource Center on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013 in San Leandro, Calif.
Alejandra Ellis with her children in the toy donation room at the Davis Street Family Resource Center on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013 in San Leandro, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

Davis Street began in 1972 as a ministry of the First Christian Church of San Leandro, offering locals food and clothing, and later child care at the church.

Today, Davis Street is its own nonprofit organization described by Executive Director Rose Padilla Johnson as "the safety net for people who are in need," for those "who fall through the cracks" in society.

Now headquartered in a 22,300-square-foot building on Teagarden Street, Davis Street offers those who qualify subsidized child care and free food, clothing, medical and dental clinic services, physical therapy, counseling, basic computer and job-seeker training, healthy cooking classes and affordable housing resources. The clinic, staffed by volunteer doctors, was recently expanded from 2,000 to 5,000 square feet, and officials are seeking a state primary care license so they can take Medi-Cal patients, expand hours with paid staffing and provide urgent care at night.

Davis Street clientele range from the working poor to the unemployed, and include citizens and the undocumented, and many are still feeling the effects of the recession, Padilla Johnson said. The center felt it, too.

Fundraising to purchase their building in 2008 were stymied for a time as pledged support was withdrawn, all while more and more people came through their doors.

"It hit us on personal level as an agency really hard ... then coupled with how it was hitting our clients created this perfect storm," said Padilla Johnson, who grew up in San Leandro.

Before 2008, the center provided food and clothing to an average of 1,000 people a month. By the end of 2008, that number had climbed to 6,000 people. The center that once provided a full week's worth of groceries to families could only provide three to four days' worth, and the service area that once included East Oakland and Hayward was limited to just San Leandro residents. The number of people receiving food each month has dipped from its peak, and now hovers around 3,800 to 4,000 people, Padilla Johnson said.

The center took another hit in 2010 when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut funding for CalWORKS stage-three child care programs. Davis Street lost $2 million in funding and 277 children had to be unenrolled from the child care program, officials said.

But with other steady funding from state and local public agencies and private donations, the local mainstay has endured, and Ellis -- who used to "hang out" in the Davis Street clothing closet at age 10 while her mother worked in the child care program -- is thankful it is still around.

"I didn't think it would be a long-term thing like it has become," Ellis said. "Now I understand and it kind of sucks to be in that situation to have to need it, but I am really happy that there is something to turn to. ... It's only temporary, but I got those years with my kids that can never be replaced."

When her youngest enters a federal Head Start program in a year, Ellis said she wants to work part-time and return to college to become a lactation consultant or labor and delivery nursing assistant, finally earning more than minimum wage.

Her family and 1,000 others will receive a holiday food and gift basket from Davis Street this month, replete with a turkey and fixings, and toys collected by local firefighters.

Padilla Johnson said basic needs in San Leandro aren't always apparent to passers-by.

"What you see is a little house ... but you see seven cars. Seven cars is not one family. Seven cars is two families or three families," she said. "What people don't see in San Leandro is blight like they see in other urban areas, and so they kind of have that sense that poverty doesn't really exist here, but it does. We know it does."

Ashly McGlone covers San Leandro. Contact her at 510-293-2463. Follow her at Twitter.com/AshlyReports.