Saturday, September 21, 2013

No Child left behind - the bus at least.


The McKinney-Vento rep called me about a family that was going to be homeless.

I was honored.

These reps, and there’s one at every school, are in charge of implementing a program commonly called “No child left behind” which makes them responsible for making sure kids get to school if they become homeless.  Generally the school’s financial commitment is limited to bus passes, so they call me for the rest.

In the past, we dealt primarily with parents whose substance abuse or psychiatric problems was impairing their kid’s attendance.  To be invited to help parents whose kids did attend school was a real joy.  

Until I thought it through…

A multi-million dollar school district calls a private (poor) religious charity looking for $40 per day and assures me they’ll pay the $4/day needed for the OCTA day pass.  Since Orange County has decided not to help families, regardless of their children’s attendance, with emergency shelter, I have to ask what good bus passes really are if the kids have been taken by CPS when the mandated reporters at the school report, as they must, that the family’s only alternative is sleeping rough.

As personalists, we’re more than a little concerned with the legitimacy of a system where people with longstanding relationships are telling us that a kid’s future depends upon the generosity of people with whom the family doesn’t even want a relationship – just the cash.

We helped, because we are related through Christ, but I’m asking the McKinney-Vento reps that call for help to consider raising their voices.  

If not in protest, at least at a car wash designed to raise funds for sheltering homeless students.
Perhaps then the voters, if not the Supervisors, would get the message.


If I can help with the car wash, let me know... a lot of us Catholics have dirty cars!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Evidence of Innocence

North Justice Center,                     January 13, 2010
Department 12.
Fullerton, California
Dear Judge Gaffney

Last night Constance Ruff was released from jail with instructions to return Thursday with a California ID, a social security card, and presumably having applied for a Washington birth certificate.  She was charged with defrauding an innkeeper, a criminal offense.

Luckily Andy Saavedra of the Lights On Ministry (mistakenly?) assumed that the National Guard Armory Cold Weather Shelter Contractor – Mercy House, would be unwilling to accept her at 11:30 PM, so he called us here at the Catholic Worker in Santa Ana.

Had she followed “the program” Orange County has provided for the incarcerated homeless she may well have been unable to appear before you today, let alone make any progress on the tasks assigned her.  We were mistakenly summoned however, and we are grateful to have been of some small assistance to this woman.  We were also completely baffled by how she could have presented a fraudulent ID, or any ID, for that matter, to validate her putative presentation of a stolen or invalid credit card.  Permit us to explain:

When Ms. Ruff, using bus passes unavailable elsewhere in OC, traveled to the Santa Ana DMV with her jail documents, she was told that they “contained false information.”  She then returned to the Intake and Release Center, where she was informed that current policy precludes giving out copies of booking photos.  At the Social Security office on First Avenue, she was told that while her jail health data was valid for a disability application, only a picture ID could avail her a copy of her SS card.  A birth certificate and an SS card may be needed to obtain a California ID, but I do not know if a birth certificate will serve in lieu of a picture ID to obtain an SS card.  It is for this reason that she was referred to Judge Lindley’s Community Court to sort out this mess.

I do know that she has been given funds for both her birth certificate and a California ID, and one of our volunteers accompanied her in her quest to perform as prescribed.

Given her honesty in her dealings with us, and our volunteer’s report of her total naiveté in navigating government procedures familiar to experienced cons, I wonder how she could have presented any ID, much less a real one, with the intention of renting a room.  Each and every time I have rented someone a room, and I do that a lot, I have been asked for my ID to verify my credit card, and then the person I get the room for is asked for their ID as part of some homeland security measure implemented within the Patriot Act.

While I’m lucky that my credit cards are both valid and match my ID, I wonder how she obtained a room without both.  If, as she alleges, a con man used a stolen card to obtain her room, fraud does not explain her obtaining a room without ID as well as fear or remorse experienced by a desk clerk compensated illegally explains an eleventh hour summons of the police to criminalize what is really a civil matter, albeit one that would, upon discovery, surely get them fired.

In comparing the use of stolen credit cards with using counterfeit money in People v. Munoz, (Super. Ct. No. 07WF0998) the Court held there was no evidence that either Munoz or Prado was actively engaged in the creation of this counterfeit currency, stating “Based upon the record in this case, then, we cannot infer that Munoz actually knew she was passing counterfeit currency as part of her payment to the motel manager, and thus we cannot conclude she intended to defraud the motel when she made that payment.”  Although the Court cited using stolen credit cards as a counter-example, it was because that party had provided cards “with their name on them.”  Presumably their name was determined from matching ID.  That element is clearly missing here.
We have provided Ms. Ruff with a size two dress and a bus pass that she might be able to appear before you today.  When you are presented with the paucity of her resources, both intellectual and documentary, we trust you will immediately succeed where the police, at the urging of the desk clerk, failed, and see her for the obvious innocent that she is.
Thank you very much for seeing justice done in this matter.
Sincerely,

Br. Dwight Smith, SFO, Director

Fallen Arches

I am very grateful to those of you who by reading my blog help me to push back my delusions of utility.  By actually having some readers, I cannot retreat into my customary, if necessary stance of entirely self-directed ruminations.

Sometimes the very same things happen at the extremes of our ministry: Instances occur so far from the normal run of things that it strikes me how providential it is that I have you to tell about them.  If they were mine alone, I might as well write them on black paper with India ink.

A woman we’ll call Ann called me two days ago looking for her mail and I asked her why she didn’t get it when she came home.   “I got thrown out for taking a shower at the wrong time,” she said.   Now I have grown to hate the innocent; this is my great gift from the Franciscan Order of Penitents, so I knew she was guilty.  After a circumambulation in which she addressed all my wife’s imagined sins, (consisting solely of Ann's unmet needs) I decided it would be better to keep Ann at a distance, so I offered her an ongoing opportunity to call me to see if her check had arrived.

Having been offered an inch, she appeared at the door, demanding her mile, forcing her way into the house and offering to beat my wife, call the police and alert the media if we didn’t produce her check.

Now we have a deal with the City courtesy of Federal Judge Nakazato, wherein we can “ignore” R2b zoning on Sunday morning because we’re “religious.”  This means we can be open to the public like a Mailboxes USA only on Sunday before Noon.  Nevertheless, we give the homeless five other chances each week to check their mail at the Civic Center, conveniently while eating our tasty food.

So Ann terrified Leia, not just with threats of violence, but with the very real possibility that the neighbors, ever mindful of property values, would file a justified complaint about a loud fight during the week “with the public.”

When I got back from Seal Beach on an errand, Leal was understandably furious – and I felt terrible.  My wife had been threatened, almost beat, in my absence and I had failed to protect her.  I was mortified.  And this wasn’t the first time…

At the root of all this tragedy, especially for Ann, is the atavistic disregard with which the OC prioritizes the mentally-ill.  One day I watched a Mental Health outreach worker struggling to decipher his notes.  “They’re making us tear off the unused goldenrod copy from old forms and write on the back.  I guess we can’t afford white notepads.”  A call to NAMI, the National Association for the Mentally Ill in Orange County, confirmed that patients referred to the local MHA, the Mental Health Association, must have been inpatients within the last six month or the referral is refused.

Imagine if you could only visit your doctor under the same terms.  I had a tonsillectomy in 1954 and an appendectomy in 1973, so I would have been locked out of my Doctor’s office for the last forty years!  In addition, there is a marked difference in the severity and persistence of disorders leading to inpatient mental hospitalization and physical surgery.  Many regular hospitalizations, such as mine, completely resolve the underlying condition in a week or less.  Not so with psych admissions.  Now most mental health patients never need hospitalization, because lots of things can go wrong in a persons life, terribly wrong, without incapacitating them completely.  When a person is hospitalized on a publicly funded psych ward, there’s a fair chance that they’ll be very sick for a very long time. 

What this means is the entire Mental Health Association apparatus is focused entirely on those people they are least able to help.  When I worked administrative support in the emergency room of a Community Mental Health Center in the Seventies, the inpatient psych ward therein hired only two types of employees: psychiatric technicians or (nurses with equivalent training) and psychiatrists.  That is because the treatment for inpatient level mental disorders is almost entirely psycho-pharmaceutical; among two hundred employees we had more janitors than Social Workers, no “case managers” and only one Psychologist for administering psychometric tests offered in evidence in our in-house courtroom.

Since this policy change, that is, the county’s idea of treating only the “untreatable,” carried with it no corresponding debacle among the staff, I have it upon the good authority of the torpor which is ever-present hallmark of governance in the OC, that I can be pretty certain they’re all “outpatient” type workers from before the change.

Only in Government Psychiatric Care can you find the equivalent of Candy-Stripers in the operating room.  And when the patient is homeless, it likely the person holding the “scalpel” will be merely another patient: Like the MHA’s “Peer Treatment” program where the blind lead the blind!  This community is the connection Ann was depending upon to inspire and motivate her to take her meds.  The meds that blunt her affect, steal her sex-drive, make it impossible not to gain weight and leave her in a fog only anger and street drugs can cut through.  The meds likely do the same things to the “community partners” and yet one would presume they take them since they have no other professional qualification as therapists.  They are the living examples offered to Ann as role models.  Perhaps if we paid Ann a salary and supervised her behavior 40 hours a week she could concoct some other factors besides cash and surveillance to make the uncompensated and otherwise ignored street client comply and take their meds.  I know I can’t.

More than anything, it is the wholesale abrogation of responsibility to inpatients that marks both the genesis of homelessness and the terrible sin that is at the core of community psychiatry.  From the untested, totally unwise relocation of state hospital patients into community mental health centers to the ingrown horror of blaming patients for not getting well, it falls to us to pick up the pieces, or, as in Leia’s case with Ann, get threatened with them.

About three months ago, one of the “staff” at the MHA Day Center conceived of a solution to referrals that’s almost as insane, and I use that word carefully, as the American Psychiatric Association’s complicity in the disestablishment of the State Hospital system.  The MHA “staff” began to advise the patients they referred here to conceal their past:  “Don’t tell the Dwight’s House (their unique appellation for the OC Catholic Worker) you were an inpatient, and never admit you’re on meds!  And don’t say we referred you or they’ll know!”  Needless to say it was immediately apparent from the fact that the MHA “staff” had failed to consider the requirement for an alternate  “cover story,” that every guest who exclusively and quite dumbly refused to in any way share where they’d been the last few months was one of theirs.

I called Mark Smith, the Director of MHA’s Inpatient Services, and told him as long as this formal deception was MHA policy we would be admitting no one.  The only times we had ever been assaulted was by MHA referrals, and now that they were hiding among the homeless we simply would refuse to accept anybody.  He immediately insisted that this would stop and it did – the “peer helpers” at the MHA hadn’t told him either!  Implementing a policy of lying to the only women’s emergency shelter in Orange County is likely indicative of the stellar quality of therapy that failed Ann so miserably, as well as the other homeless.  Every altercation we’ve had in the past five years has been with an un-medicated mentally-ill client who was either declined mental-health treatment because they hadn’t been an inpatient or a former inpatient the MHA couldn’t inspire to stay on their meds.  Is it any wonder that the first thing that occurred to them was to lie about it?

And who could blame them?  For at the top of their vocational food chain we see modeled for their inspiration the exact same behavior: lying and blaming someone else.  Only psychiatrists could guide an entire country in allowing police and the public to blame mental patients exited from State Hospitals (the original homeless) for not being in a hospital, locked away from those of us who will never understand why they “choose” to be homeless.

A nurse I think the world of told me a story about his first month on the job that is uniquely representative for what we’ve done to our poor:  As a young nursing student, he was easily the largest, toughest student ever, 6’2” 180 lbs., so they short-circuited his education to give him “work experience” on the psych ward of a local hospital.  There was a lot of work to be done “winding down” because either the hospital or perhaps just the psych ward was being decommissioned and the patients were understandably agitated.  He performed like a natural in those few weeks so I’d like to think that’s why this young, unsuspecting hulk was given the “last job.”  In spite of the best efforts of the unit’s social-work staff, whatever that looked like, there were seven patients who, on the last day, had not been out-placed, either because no other hospital wanted the trouble, or because their insurance was inadequate.

Now this last job started out with a great deal of fanfare – everyone, even the locked ward wackjobs, were going on a field trip to McDonalds.  My friend was told once everyone had prayed over and then become enraptured at the prospect of a piping hot, actually fresh Happy Meal, he was to bring back just the van, placing the keys in the accounting office, and then go home.  Now he was used to a lot of short shifts and irregular turnovers within the psych ward, so he had assumed, and, this being very important to our understanding of community psychiatry, had not been dissuaded, from assuming that someone else would get the keys and take those seven patients to their new hospital.  The odd nature of the field trip, the lack of supervision, and the concealment of facts, however, ate away at him, and even though he no longer worked for MidCentral Regional Medical Center, he decided to go for a burger exactly one week after his last day and the last job.

Five of the seven inpatients were still there, begging from the customers, sleeping at night behind the dumpster, the meeker ones foraging through the trash for the fulsome remnants of plates served up to spoiled swells offended that their parents had “forced” them to dine at MickeyD’s.  There was plenty to eat, the immense sea of concrete kept them warm at night, and odd behavior and the lack of showers generally kept the odd good Samaritan at bay.  The two patients missing from the original half-dozen had strayed from the haven of the 24 hour eatery and interacted with frightened citizens denied the context of the Golden Arches under which everything could be assumed to be well in hand.

Somebody once said that there is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the crest, leads on to glory.  No one has heretofore used that hopeful snippet in reverse, so let me be the first to tell you about not the crest, but the much more interesting environment, of the troughs.  Sometimes we have to wait for the seed planted deep within an extraordinary individual to await their accumulation of maturity and capital for the flowering to take place; Christ’s sermon about the seeds sown in adversity was never so prescient. 

This nurse is now founder and director of the most amazing and innovative homeless shelter I’ve ever seen.  Some other time I’ll tell you how a bunch of altruistic MBA students followed that nurse and managed to create a truly Copernican breakthrough in homeless services.  Now it’s virtually impossible to have as a key corporate virtue humility, but they do.  By putting the client, or perhaps the clients’ kids first, and then humbly outsourcing everything someone else does better, they became overnight the most reliable, fastest growing provider in Orange County. 

Why non-profits should engage in capital formation is a great question and they have answered it – they needn’t unless the mission requires it.  Only a truly innovative MBA program could get an investment banker and a bunch of marketing and computer geniuses to forego creating something that lasts.  When these people say they hope to put themselves “out of business” they act like it.  If we truly believed in our 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness, why is everybody else putting a 50 year roof on their transitional shelter?

Because we all know deep down inside that the real disorder here is not homelessness, but the same rot Christ addressed in his greatest sermon and only commandment: “Who then is my neighbor?”





Saturday, June 22, 2013

Could any substitute for G-d work as well?


I was an agnostic until I served 200 burritos to over 270 people and had 12 left over. And no, I'm not asking anyone to believe me - I've paid to serve the homeless 2000 meals each week for 17 years, as have countless others. In that time I've had at least 50 people living in my home for free. And there aren't any Atheists who do what I do, because its only easier than it looks when you simply "invoke" G-d; some external energy enters the system. The problem is that millions of "double-blind" (although uncontrolled) experiments have been conducted, and (I believe) no substitute for G-d has ever been found. Edit Bio


Instead of asking pysicists and magicians about miracles, and atheists about the existence of G-d, we might find some more interresting conundrums for those atheists if we searched among econometricians and sociologists.  Eventually we'll find that the amount of energy required to achieve certain beneficient outcomes is simply unavailable in this Universe.

A long time ago I asked some microeconomists to reconcile Shannon's Law regarding entropy in communications networks of bidders, and their confusion led me to suspect that n-dimensional extensions of the Pareto-type representations common in microeconomic pedagogy were impossible, and that even 20+ bidder representations are so fraught with error (at any common frequency of bids) one wonders how anyone buys or sells anything without far more errors than we experience, or that Shannon's Law anticipates.

Clearly something is happening.  Now it's likely I'm applying Shannon's Law incorrectly.  It is more likely, however, that no economist really understands what happens when manny bidders and sellers engage in simultaneous transactions for many goods.  Whether we use outcry bidding and fiat money or more subtle models of internal representations of clusters of objects and cliques of transactors, so many more decisions are made for us than by us I think before we even pretend to tackle the G-d problem we Ants might want to know a little more about the Farm.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Early Retirement


When you’re sixty-two, a lot of things come full circle.  You start to get back some of the money you sent Social Security.  You get old and forgetful, and you tend to get led around by the “belt around your waist.”  If you’re lucky, you’re wife reminds you “of the near disaster that happened the last time you did that.”    A lifesaver, that woman! 

It is then that I recall the words of my sainted mother, “Don’t you have anything more important to do with your life than to get Rosaries into the jail,” and now I can proudly say, “Yeah, I can help the ladies from the backyard get their hair colored twice each month.”

In all the years I was a Chaplain I found myself giving theological advice to hundreds of different people, but it was really always the same advice:  If you pay attention to every time Jesus says something in the Bible, a pattern emerges.  If you keep track of who he’s talking to, you’ll realize that all the demanding, rebuking things are being said either to the Scribes and the Pharisees or to the Apostles, to the people with power.  Whenever Jesus is talking to one of us, he is always healing and forgiving, and therefore deeply with us - just where we’re coming from.  I say “coming from” because we’re all called on a journey to be just that way, both to ourselves, and more so, to each other.

Forgiveness is the rent isn’t the best advice I’ve ever given anyone, but it’s the advice I try to follow.  Now when it seems as though the terrifying possibility that everyone is right means therefore both sides are wrong, I’m struck by how foreign “forgiveness” is to our political dialog.  Accordingly, I have to wonder how comfortable Jesus would be with the process.


We live a simple life here, a sometimes healing life, and we try to deal with people’s pain in personal rather than political ways, and we invite you to join us, even if you’ve been gone a long time.  All is forgiven; you are welcome here.  Your gifts are needed and valued.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Has God been fair to us?


If you can, remember a time when you compared your situation with people in a similar ministry.  I you're like Leia and me, and you've worked years in a rich diocese, these people are poorer, and work harder in worse circumstances.  

For a brief moment you wonder whether you could hack it there with them.  And then you retreat a bit, and admit you're glad you aren't beset with such poor circumstances, that you're glad your ministry is rich and we don't have to work quite so hard…like when I thanked God for not making me a Calcutta Catholic Worker

That was God making me an offer I refused.
And if upon understanding this analysis, you are rewarded with a wave of dread, calm yourself.
That is you asking honestly to again be considered.

You see, it is possible that the Hindus are right, they just have Reincarnation's direction reversed.  It is the people who do more with less who will be most in demand.  Who will be asked to travel poorward.

The world of the tomorrow will have less air, less money, more pain, more heat, less hope.

There is a paradoxical name for people who not only bear up under trying circumstances, but then in helping others make their own circumstances even more trying: meek.

At some point you may be asked to forego resources needed to accomplish some salvific task.
Having been so educated by God's dread you will turn over those resources to another: A better placed, better prepared compatriot, in a poorer place.

And then, like an Inuit grandparent placed upon the ice floe with only a few days' provisions,
you will inherit the Earth.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sola Fe


Last week I met with some former “ActUp” activists, to welcome them to volunteering at Isaiah House.  Times change, and the young man who had invaded masses and embarrassed Cardinals on behalf of gay rights was now a caregiver, his partner having fallen, like all of us eventually do, before the ravages, not of lifestyle, but of time.  He asked me to blog about a Christianity that emphasizes our common suffering rather than an adolescent captivation with minute doctrinal distinctions like the defense of marriage.

The insight that captured his imagination was this:  I said being a Christian wasn’t like affirming the sunrise, I said it was more like swimming, as in “I believe in Christ like I believe I can swim in the ocean.”  Obviously “Sola Fe” makes a lifetime of sitting on the beach holding forth on the breaststroke possible.  That a Pastor would have a special wardrobe crafted for such occasions is predictable.  That it is both expensive and not at all compatible with water illustrates the lamentable state of Christianity in Orange County.

Faith alone may be theologically supportable, but I find it binding; it ties God’s hands.  As a question it is a wonderful spur to the kind of college discussions that shape young people’s lives.  As a dogma, an insistence, however, it is a wretched constraint, ruining lives and churches and laying waste to the great gift of the poor.  It makes their suffering irrelevant and it renders Christ’s greatest sermon incomprehensible.  The priest and the Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan were passing by the injured victim because of faith, and faith alone.  The basic human impulse to care, and to care for, so called "Works" is crushed beneath the enormity of the Sola.  It renders the victim alone, the Priest and the Levite alone.  Like the other Solas, it trades community and humanity for nothing but a resolute doctrinality, leaving us all more alone.

My friend has one hope: such a doctrine, being the province of the wealthy young, falls before the poverty it eschews and the infirmity with which God seasons age.  It is hard to find that strident doctrinal clarity of voice when you are the one with the broken jaw.  And eventually every jaw, if not broken, is mellowed:  with time, looser interpretations issue from mouths with looser teeth.

What is lost however, is fecundity.  At precisely the time when we should be rearing our children to be Christians by example, we are overwhelming their attention spans with erudite and incomprehensible disputations on Christ’s law.  We insist that they attend banal beach blanket Bible bindings punctuated by the occasional unattended drowning.

It is altogether fitting that such a religion must devolve into confusing faith with the exposition of faith.  It then becomes a perfect vessel for corporate emanations, which although written by a human are then repeated by a faith-based corporation.  When I pointed out that we were for years the largest shelter in Orange County, I was asked what the Village of Hope did with the “extra” $12 million, which was the difference in our budgets.  I said they “spread the word,” largely by increasing the people’s faith in the Village of Hope, by using $12 million dollars worth of words to communicate $2 hundred thousand dollars worth of work.

Were they purists, they could have eliminated “works” altogether, spending the entire budget on just talking about helping homeless people.  Spending it on faith alone.