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Shelter With Open Arms Faces City With Firm Hand

Times Staff Writer

No one disagrees that too many homeless families are taking refuge at the rented two-story Craftsman home in Santa Ana.

Deep into November, with money from government checks all but gone, their numbers have swollen to more than 120, including 70 children.

At night, the lucky families who get to sleep inside on the wood floors huddle under blankets, comforters and sleeping bags. Hacking coughs and the cries of babies punctuate the evening silence -- a small price for a sturdy roof overhead.

The house on a quiet residential street near the Civic Center is rented by Catholic Worker, a local anti-poverty group affiliated with a movement that has more than 150 independent “houses of hospitality” and farming communes worldwide. City officials say there are no permits to operate a shelter at the Cypress Street home and have taken the first steps to curtail the operation.

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Dwight Smith, who heads the Orange County branch of Catholic Worker with his wife, Leia, says it would be a relief to get out of the shelter business. His proposition to local officials is this: If the city or county has a place to shelter these people, by all means, come and get them. But until then, the policy of the Catholic Worker is to let them stay -- as Jesus would have done.

“This isn’t a permanent solution,” Smith says. “But it’s less dangerous and less insane than being on the street.”

This kind of literal rendering of Jesus’ message has turned the independent Catholic Worker, by accident or providence, into one of Southern California’s largest shelters for homeless families.

It’s also given those people taking up temporary residence in Dwight’s House, as it’s known among street people, a reason to be thankful today.

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“Sometimes this is the only place to go,” said Marnie Sanchez, 34, who has five children, ages 6 months to 16. “They put up with a lot of stuff. I think my kids would be gone if it wasn’t for this place.”

A teddy bear of a man, Smith, 53, walks through the concrete backyard pointing out different guests, wondering where they would go if kicked out.

Look at David Michaels, an unemployed handyman whose wife died last year. He spends his day taking care of his 5-year-old autistic daughter, Sarah.

“If it weren’t for this place, we’d be holding up a sign [begging] out there,” Michaels says. “I worried about having Sarah taken away.”

And what about Amy Sue Askins, 34, with her three blond daughters, ages 9, 6 and 5? She’s enrolled her children in school for the first time in at least a year.

“If it wasn’t for this place, I’d be walking the streets, living in parks,” Askins contends.

Or the pregnant Hmong woman who showed up on the doorstep a few nights ago? She’s pregnant with six children in tow and knows no English.

“We solve a lot of Santa Ana’s problems that the city doesn’t want to face,” says Smith, adding that police officers routinely drop off women and their children at the Catholic Worker late at night because no one else will accept them.

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Despite its name, the Catholic Worker isn’t tied to any church. It’s a loose collection of volunteers who try to live out the Gospel message by living in a rented home, officially called Isaiah House, and ministering to those in need.

The Catholic Worker’s philosophy, taken from the teachings of Jesus, is that the last shall be first. These people are the chronic homeless with an overdose of bad things in their lives: bad luck, bad decisions, bad education, bad relationships, bad addictions and bad ailments, physical and mental.

They are the lowest of the county’s more than 20,000 homeless, those unable to claim a bed in one of the traditional shelters, which are able to house only 2,200. They may have used up the maximum number of nights at other places. They may have been unwilling to follow a required program. Or they may have been unable to find a place that takes both men and their families.

So they end up being invited to Dwight’s House. They get clothes, food, a hot shower and place to sleep. If they’re lucky, they bed down inside. If not, they sleep in the backyard, on picnic tables and on bone-chilling concrete, buried underneath layers of blankets and sleeping bags.

A few years back, the Smiths -- who had been concentrating on only feeding the homeless at the time -- decided their faith would no longer allow them to turn away the most vulnerable among the homeless: Families. Single women. Men with physical disabilities.

As imperfect as their home was, it was safe. Their guests didn’t need to worry about being robbed or raped or dying of exposure in the winter.

Rules are few: No fighting. No weapons. No drugs on the property or in the neighborhood -- part of an effort to accommodate neighbors. The Smiths also provide food and clothing to the surrounding houses and apartments, a gesture appreciated among the poor, mostly Latino tenants. Some have become regular volunteers.

For people with children, the Catholic Worker has only one requirement: Your children must to be enrolled in school and an after-school homework program. The message is: The parents may be beyond help, but the children still have a chance.

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“It’s the crux of what we’re doing to break this whole cycle,” said Mark Massengill, one of the seven Catholic Worker volunteers who live at the house.

“We’re trying to get these people to understand. They may be second- or third-generation homeless, and their kids have never had their own apartment or bed.”

Somehow, the Smiths and other volunteers have made it work on a monthly budget of $12,000 -- money that comes from local donors -- and an endless supply of patience. Life at the Catholic Worker seems to be constantly on the edge of chaos. It’s not unexpected, considering the proximity of swarms of energetic children, emotionally troubled adults and recovering addicts.

But the volunteers hold it all together -- especially Dwight Smith, who gives out hugs to those hurting, gruff rebukes to those needing discipline and hearty laughs to those in need of a smile.

“Dwight is like a dad, the dad I never had,” said Marnie Sanchez, the mother of five who dreams of starting a combination tattoo, piercing and nail-care shop, and retiring early.

The Catholic Workers in Orange County say they do the work to meet God up close. It’s worth the vow of poverty -- they get room and board and $10 a week -- and living with more than 100 people who can be at times dirty, short-tempered or just plain crazy.

Massengill said he became homeless himself after his 20-month-old son Josh was murdered by his former wife’s boyfriend in 1997. He eventually climbed out of his depression and became a Catholic Worker. He knows how difficult the homeless life is and how dark the depression can be.

“I try to make their moment a little softer,” he says, smoking the latest in a string of cigarettes. “If that means a friendly nod or just listening to their stories, I try to do it.”

The 46-year-old says it’s rewarding when a “battered soul” is taken in, nurtured and then goes on to live a productive life -- though he admits it doesn’t happen often.

Still, Massengill says every day “is an opportunity to meet Jesus” through the homeless people, echoing the lesson that whatever’s done for the least among us is done for him.

The Catholic Worker’s decision to follow the biblical command to help the poorest among them has gotten them in trouble with city officials.

After years of uneasy detente, the Catholic Worker was declared a public nuisance at a hearing last week in Santa Ana. The group is operating a mission out of a home without permits and has illegal tents -- used to store food and clothes -- erected in the backyard, according to a city citation.

The Smiths and their landlord -- Steven Dzida, a Catholic attorney from Irvine who supports their work -- have until Jan. 20 to comply with the law.

“What kind of community are we creating where we can’t house our children?” Leia Smith asked, tears coming to her eyes. “The options being presented are only two: Have tolerance for an imperfect situation or have children on the streets. If there was a third option, we’d all be happy.”

Dwight Smith says he feels as though he’s a driver of a pickup, trying to escape a canyon fire. In the back of the truck, there’s room for four children, but 10 need to be rescued. It may be illegal, but he’ll pack them in, drive as safely as possible and keep them away from the flames.

“These aren’t men or drug addicts we’re talking about,” he says. “They’re children, and they are profoundly in danger.”


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