Kindness, interrupted

Times Staff Writer

Dwight Smith considers housing the homeless his mission in life.

So when the local building industry offered to donate time and materials to renovate Isaiah House, the Catholic Worker-sponsored shelter he directs in Santa Ana, Smith jumped at the chance.

Ten months later, however, the volunteer contractors -- hit hard by a mortgage meltdown and industry lull that have left many unemployed -- had to abandon the job. And now Smith reigns over a building whose lower public floor, with gutted restrooms, is uninhabitable and hasn't had an overnight guest in more than two months.

"Because of the mortgage meltdown, a lot of the contractors have laid off half their workforce, and some of the contracting companies who had signed on to do the work don't exist anymore," Smith explained on a recent Friday afternoon at the shelter, where not a homeless person was in sight.

Ordinarily there would be dozens of women and children staying the night, as well as hundreds more getting meals each day. Though food is still served, Smith said, the building's condition, with only about 80% of the work completed, has for more than 10 weeks made it impossible for homeless people to sleep there.

The result: homeless people looking for beds while their would-be providers desperately seek new ways to help them. "Now we're facing an April 1 deadline to finish, and we need $100,000 in donations to complete the work," said Edmund M. Conner, an Irvine attorney who volunteers at the home.

The deadline, he said, was set by Smith, eager to reopen the doors.

The place garnered headlines last year when a band teacher and his students taught homeless children there to play instruments and invited them to perform in a concert at Carnegie Hall. But the 100-year-old, two-story Victorian house in the 300 block of Cypress Avenue had grown shabby.

Plans for its renovation included a new kitchen, food preparation area, restroom for the handicapped, garage and covered outdoor area. HomeAid Orange County, a nonprofit arm of the Building Industry Assn., started the $500,000 project in March in conjunction with the California Professional Assn. of Specialty Contractors, Orange County-Inland Empire chapter. Typically about 75% of such work is done with labor and materials donated by the industry, said Scott Larson, HomeAid's executive director. The remainder is usually paid for by outside contributors.

Nobody expected the mortgage mess to derail the project.

"No one is criticizing anybody," Conner said. The now-absent contractors, he said, have "done an incredible amount of work."

Volunteers connected with the home have begun a public relations campaign to encourage donations. In a letter to other attorneys, Conner described a desperate search for alternate funding to pay for the work.

"As you can imagine," he wrote, "the volunteer contractors that have been working with HomeAid have been especially hard hit by the downturn in the housing industry and are unable to provide any more free labor or materials to finish. . . ."

If and when the necessary donations materialize, HomeAid's Larson said, his organization would pay workers to complete the project.

David L. Belz, a San Juan Capistrano attorney, said Isaiah House is a special ministry of the St. Thomas More Society, a philanthropic group of Orange County judges and lawyers.

He has appealed for help through the society, but so far has come up empty-handed.

This has left Smith feeling more than a bit uncertain about the fulfillment of his mission. "I just want to open the home," he said amid all the emptiness Friday. "We have families who desperately need a place to stay."

Donations can be made on behalf of Isaiah House through HomeAid, 17744 Sky Park Circle, Suite 170, Irvine, CA 92614.

david.reyes@latimes.com

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