Friday, December 31, 2010

An Open Letter to Volunteers

We’d like to tell you the great secret of volunteering at the Catholic Worker. It’s more properly a mystery, not unlike the Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark. It wasn’t as if Jesus ever really concealed anything from anyone, it’s just that, at first, only the woman with the spikenard hair balm could see the implications of the situation clearly.

That’s what so few of us do here – see the implications of these women’s situation clearly. It’s not so much that we’re called to do anything more expensive or time-consuming than paint their nails, or condition their hair, or just break bread with them. The secret is to simultaneously realize the implications of their situation.

In order to do that we might start with listening, which is a good deal more complicated that it first appears.

Now I know very little about listening. Had I not been confronted with people who wanted to speak to me for fifteen years, I wouldn’t know squat. But since they were in my house, they were hard to avoid, so learn I did.

One of the enduring realizations I’ve gleaned from my sojourn is a startling paraphrase of a vile drug fable: “God will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no God.” While undeniably true, none of us seem to grasp the obvious implication: Poor people spend a great deal of time listening to God.

As a result, there is a chance than the poor are fairly connected up there, and, as a result there is an good chance that, were we to confine our gifts to the spiritual realm, we could be “bringing coal to Newcastle.”

Listening might well go better if we could adopt the mental posture of a student rather than of a teacher. After all, we are all hoping we never become homeless, and we are working to minimize the negative aspects of their homelessness by listening to them, so what advice do we really have to offer them about being homeless?

What then shall we students study with our newfound technique of listening?

A first guess might involve those things that are priceless, the virtues: candor, humility, charity, longsuffering, forgiveness. These are the things that often impress those who listen to the homeless. These are learned capabilities that, like most human studies, involve both book work and field study.

The bookwork is the Sunday homily, the years of developing a mental map of the person of Jesus Christ so that we can intuit how to imitate him. The fieldwork is listening to the homeless, while bearing in mind the great rejoicing in Heaven because we have become enrolled as students in the secret school of virtue earned vicariously by another’s suffering.

Understanding the implications of their situation as they imitate Christ, if we can.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Murder in the Manger, Wink, Wink

Recently we enjoyed the third episode of the Isaiah House Theater Company. The Company is our initial attempt to accomplish the first part of an enormous task – to ask everyone in Orange County to see the homeless as people, and to see all people as beloved creatures of God.

You see, even my police friends are starting to talk about “rehabilitating” the homeless. One in particular has lately become very unfamiliar to me. He sounds nothing like the tough, take-no-prisoners cop I’m used to, talking now like a Social Worker about hidden mental illness, the scourge of micro-malnutrition, and the importance of counseling for helping the homeless face their fears. He’s now thinking they’re patients in need of a program!

He’s not wrong, exactly, he’s just forty years too late.

When I was in college just four short decades ago I worked at County Mental Health in San Diego. Back then, CMH was really just a bus station for people on their way to Patton State Hospital, and even though people had different diagnoses, there was really only one main reason people were sent away: grave disability. Back then, doctors and police and social workers would actually assess whether or not a person might become homeless. Those likely to fail at supporting themselves were deemed too ill to continue in society and were bussed north to be cared for by experts. State hospitals were the experts in curing the homeless.

The problem now is that Orange County has begun to become officially “therapeutic” toward the homeless. (I mean “therapeutic” in the sense of a something really expensive which has nothing to do with either food or lodging!) Now that the state hospitals have gone the way of the dodo, it turns out they’re the one thing we really needed all along. Not having any, we can all feel much better about abandoning the poor who are really beyond our help in any case. Why start treating someone who needs something we don’t have and couldn’t begin to afford anyway?

Now this is exactly the problem our theater company is confronting, and it’s precisely why we need your help to make everything better. You are exactly the people God created to do this job, and an acting exercise we do every Sunday proves it.

Most weeks we do a lesson called “Wink Murder” and once I explain it you’ll see why it illuminates the very thing God ordered for His own gift this holiday season, and why we Catholics are just the people to give it to him.

Wink Murder is an ensemble-building task with three elements: a murderer, a detective and a crowd. The two stars of this bit are really the least important people in the whole thing, so it’s fair that they’re given very little acting to do. The crowd is where all the real work is done. It’s their job to be the ornate frame around a simple sketch, to create an atmosphere where the simplest of dramas is played out and writ large upon the heart of the audience:

A detective tries to guess the identity of a disguised criminal who kills with a stagey wink, and the crowd elevates this guessing and winking to dramatic art by being the element that creates the tension from which the drama springs forth. Winking at a person to “cue” their death scene seems like nursery school stuff, and it would be, if not for the crowd. It’s their job to make the simple act of getting winked at first, a mystery, and second, a discovery of the greatest importance.

While the behavior of the crowd transforms a wink into a nod, each homeless actor in our talented company is simultaneously living out their existential insistence that they are not helpless incurables in need of an outmoded and unavailable cure. Similarly, we Catholics are called this and every Christmas to remind everyone that we were once in exactly the same boat, and every year it’s our job to get that ship out of dry-dock and sail once more into the battle for the World.

Now that Christmas has become a soul killing celebration of buying the least objectionable gift we can afford for people who really don’t need anything so cheap, it might be time for us to help show everyone how to behave as if Christ changed everything the moment He arrived.

You see, in the days before Christ we fell before sin like undefended nursery school children in the blink of an eye. With no one to help us, to show us the way, we were defeated that quickly. And then, into the world came our tiny Savior. Bringing nothing more lasting than insight as a solution for the mystery of sin, our play began. In the light of His life, and with the help of His body, we began to discover what was wrong. And in exactly the same way that the crowd is the very most important job in the exercise of Wink Murder, we are again being offered the most important role available in the annual recreation of each Christmas. We, the crowd, have the job of making this the Christmas where we discover what is wrong and how we can heal. Especially when it seems like years since the hospital’s been open or the wrapped boxes we tear apart have been filled with anything of lasting value.

In the same way our little theater company is going to make people re-member the forgotten humanity of the homeless crowd, we Catholics must together make the world again see the possibility of regaining our own humanity through the miracle of that ancient transformation.

The Christmas story, written as it was by Christ’s disciples, necessarily focuses upon Him, and His mother and father, upon their harrowing journey and His dangerous birth in a manger and His even more dangerous identification as the intended victim of Herod’s murderous fear. This year, as in every year, those roles are filled. This year, as in every subsequent year, the only role left to us is the crowd. Thank God it’s the role we born to play, and it’s the role wherein God, in His life-giving humility, depends upon us for the meaning of the Season to become revealed.

To become detected.

A videotape of the Virgin Birth could not have shown the terrible importance of that singular, and yet ostensibly ordinary event. A baby is born to a poor family in impoverished surroundings. We wonder why God chose such humble surroundings for such an important birth. It was not just the Infant, but the entire world in that manger, born anew each Christmas by our willingness to heed it’s meaning. Our willingness to act as if the World, and every single person in it, is saved.

Neither we, nor our homeless thespians, nor their brothers and sisters in the street are beyond His reach. Through us, in our role as members of the crowd, we can re-member this Christmas those people our government has blasphemously deemed beyond saving. All we need to do is bear witness to the terrible and similar state we ourselves were in before His birth; to bear witness that no person is beyond His reach or beneath His concern. All we need is to remember that the earliest meaning of the word sin was “debt” to illuminate our ongoing need for Christ to fill the current chasm in our hearts, and for us solve the mystery of the murderers afoot in the world.

All we need to do is throw away the terrible and deadly script we’re annually given by society, and act instead as if, by being invited together to detect and display the holy hidden meaning of this, His world, we’re saved.

This Christmas, if you’d like to play a central role in the care and serving of our brothers and sisters in Christ, give us a call. It’s a killer role you’ll die for.

How Perfect is that?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Shrinking OC's Mental Health

Early in May, I asked the Executive Director for the OC Psychiatric Society about how parity was working out.

Buried in the TARP bill was a windfall provision that prevented Insurance companies from limiting mental health benefits.

Nevertheless, in that grand contrarian tradition that so characterizes any move the OC Board makes to afflict the poor - we've headed the opposite way.

We have now so constricted County funded emergency services to the mentally-ill that counselors are telling us that hospitalization within the last six months is now a prerequisite for obtaining OC services.

I recently concluded Open Government Record Act requests which proved that the County of OC does nothing except take credit for unavoidably spending federal money on the homeless.

I also recently received another records request response from the County Mental Health people indicating that "homelessness" was enough to qualify children, and likely others, for services funded by Prop.63, California's Homeless Child Millionaire Tax. Again, like Fedfunds, State money we know how to spend, and for which the Board will likely take credit.

Limiting County mental health services to those with a recent (less than 6 months) history of inpatient hospitalization limits its scope to largely incurable cases. Although fine as a guarantee of wages for County employees, this effectively limits CMH treatment to the un-treatable.

Moreover, such a change in focus should obviously indicate a massive re-arrangement of employees - basically eliminating anyone not involved in the delivery of psych meds or inpatient therapy. At last, we can begin to fire all the unlicensed County social workers over at Mental Health, and resolve some of the revenge issues that impair the forward socialization of the County's homeless.

I therefore asked Holly Applebaum for the names of OC Psychiatric Society members who serve the County in an advisory capacity, to determine their current opinion, as well as their opinion of record, regarding this matter.

I'd like them to consider the DSM V diagnosis for extreme selfishness. Perhaps a high level intervention upon the members of OC Board of Supervisors could restore our mendacious, money-grubbing government to some semblance of health.

After a month, however, I fear that the OCPS members are shrinking from a public dialog.

They're in the right County.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Continuum of Care

Gordon Johnson, webmaster for the OC Greens kindly suggested that I provide a bit of background on the shelter system for those not enmeshed in the daily struggle to house the poor.

When Leia and I started in 1993, the reigning paradigm was the Federal Continuum of Care: Given the job market at the time, it was ambitious and almost doable. IT provided for three levels of shelter, emergency, transitional and long-term, with interdependent tasks on the part of both the shelter and the guest to resolve the issue that caused the problem.

The first week the guest sought work, while the shelter provided "two hots and a cot" and little else. Guests were self-referred, and as a result, the shelter was to require only id and make a bed available on an "immediate need" basis. Guests were allowed to re-enter every thirty days if they couldn't graduate to transitional.

The next month, provided employment was secured, one could enjoy, in addition to the hots and cot, job development, case management, and generally some flexibility regarding the rules as required by one's employer. Usually, a referral from the emergency shelter was required to get in and guests with drug, alcohol and mental health problems usually got weeded out.

This is where the bulk of the Social Work was done, because the transitional shelter had to predict which people would be able to stabilize their social network to rejoin it. These were the guests who would be referred on to the long-term shelter. The rest could try for an "extension."

The next two years offered the real opportunity to rebuild. Once the guest was secure (passed probation) in their employment, the long-term shelter offered a shared apartment, help with groceries and the sole requirement that the guest save 80% of their check. Back then, even 80% of two years at minimum wages could provide a guest with first and last plus deposit, a real cell number, and maybe even a cheap car, or wiser, an OCTA pass and a three-month cushion against future layoffs.

Even reading this now seems ironic. No-one save a petroleum site remediation engineer can get a job in a week or less, and temp-to-hire has all but eliminated probation in the blue-collar workplace. Worst of all, two years ago the Fed ceased funding the 7 day emergency program and as a result the entire Continuum has no entry point.

As a result, although many counties replaced the missing Federal money; rich old Orange County elected simply to lie. Inventing a new Continuum of Care that included, quoting Kelly Lupro, OC's Director of Homeless Prevention, "a coalition of all those who have a heart for the homeless," we all tried hard to ignore the broken nightmare that followed.

It's as if we called ourselves Christian and then closed all hospital emergency rooms in order to emphasize Christ's miracle healings. As a Catholic, I can promise you that, except for the Holy Salvation Army, Christians here are no more involved in emergency shelter than the Taliban is, even as voters!

Which brings me to my point. Please ask your City Council what provision your current City plan makes for the homeless. Now that the County has officially admitted that there are no "low threshold, non-subpopulation restricted emergency beds in the OC" you'd think that the Federal contingency plan for the homeless inherent in every City plan might actually kick in!

Not hardly. Your City, along with every other City in the OC (except Coto de Caza - don't ask) is waiting for their part in the County's 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness in Orange County. Google it.

The OC variant of this nationwide plan paradigm currently has no funding and no administration, so it's really just a pipe-dream. Nevertheless, taking the same people who mismanaged the last twenty years of smaller plans at their word, it will not provide a single emergency bed until 2013! Armory beds are provided by the Federal Government, despite the clamor to take credit on the part of our lying local incumbents.

Simply put, at least for Homeless 101: Orange County as a County provides not one immediately available emergency bed; not for the sick, nor for families with toddlers or infants, not for single women or men, not even for grandmothers who worked their whole life caring for others.

If Jesus comes back to Orange County for the Rapture I have no idea what we could say to him. Perhaps, given that we're largely Christians in name only, he'll skip us altogether and we'll be saved - at least from that indignation if nothing else.

We're organizing a religious/political movement to represent the interests of homeless women and children in the OC.

To join, email me at
Or you could just pray to Jesus for miracle housing.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Officially Unchallenged

In my latest Public Records Act request I tried to measure the "size of the spill" when it comes to the Board of Supervisors concern for homeless families. After a good deal of banter about 849 "high-threshold, sub-population restricted beds" I began to suspect that available might not mean funded.

Knowing that the federal government provides the money for the Cold Weather shelter (the Armories) and knowing that marriage license surcharges fund domestic violence shelters, it seemed fair to ask what the County does for the homeless, since that's the level of government charged with the responsibility!

It is clear from the answers disclosed by Kelly Lupro, Director of Homeless Prevention that our Supervisors do nothing for the homeless aside from taking credit for the Armory and Domestic Violence funds, both of which are raised elsewhere. I told Ms. Lupro I could see not one County penny even for homeless toddlers until December 2010.

On May 6, I told Ms. Lupro, "Unless you refute this assertion, I will insert it as "officially unchallenged" into all my public statements and appearances. As a Director, you represent the Board, and I will be making this accusation at their electoral and public appearances, citing, or course, this email. If there is a source of funding for emergency beds for homeless children, please consider that question a public records request."

I'm posting this because there has been no such refutation. There has been no refutation because the fifth richest County in the nation has decided to keep every penny, regardless of how little it might cost to shield a child from harm, and us from Censure. I don't know how much shame I decided to feel, but indignation comes easy.

I trust that a number of voters will likewise let their indignation decide against the incumbents.

When the SOP is double speak and the reality is so singularly evil, there's no way these bums deserve a third strike. Please join me in voting them out.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Compulsory Christian Service in Chicago

A thank you to the Archdiocese of Chicago, the sole respondent to our plea for help...

Fr. Richard Hynes, Director
Department of Evangelization, Catechesis, and Worship
Archdiocese of Chicago

I wish to commend you to our Lord for help in time of trouble. I wrote to ten archdioceses and ten dioceses, including my own. Only Chicago responded, and two gentlemen from your diocese each contributed valuable insights.

First I'd like to single out M. Paul McCaughey, who hasn't really needed compulsory Christian service except when merging single gender schools, so I'd like to propose that we all follow his leadership. Anything he chooses to send me will become part of our Roundtable on Service.

Second I'd like to mention Nicholas Lund-Molfese, who recalled for me a great Peter Maurin story about honoring the volunteer spirit: Our co-founder was removing boulders from a roadway while his companions observed his labors while laying about. Peter said nothing, understanding that turning the other cheek meant silence. Mr. Lund-Molfese also pointed out quite correctly that much of modern education is compulsory, and must be.

Since in education we are dealing with those, however temporarily, who know not what they do, nor their proper motive in learning, compulsion seems appropriate. To me this would tend to indicate a need for a review of the catechesis surrounding confirmation. If we assume that as yet unformed Catholics need to be compelled to learn to behave in accord with the Greatest Commandment, should I not wonder aloud if their experience with compulsion has resulted in the ongoing need for compulsion on the part of all but a few adults.

Why don't most confirmed Catholics serve either the Church or the poor?

If, like Peter Maurin, we do the work ourselves, so as not to deny others the opportunity to volunteer, we will obviously have few companions. The companions we lack will be dissuaded by the arduous nature of the work or from a refusal of Grace, but the constitution of the human person and the efficacy of grace are for Him to modify.

Peter, in his exquisite sensitivity and tremendous compassion, eschewed even a simple plea for help. How much does ignorance on the part of the student require us to resort to compulsion? Are adult Catholics uneducated about the primacy of our only commandment and the meaning of the Good Samaritan? Couldn't compulsion actually be part of the way the normal person learns to ignore Christ because of an adolescent recalcitrance to be ordered about? It is a busy and conflicted time for human children, a time where maturity comes in part from refusing to follow certain leads.

How often do we tell students that Christ, and not the educational institution requires this service? Are we not then acting in the stead of the bank guard who puts the non-Christmas Club patrons in the long line for deposits? The Bank is Christ and the interest is Heaven - how could the intervention of the well-intentioned guard not sully the waters of salvation?

Father, I know full well that the Church begun by Christ is no bank guard; moreover I trust that the Deposit of Faith that I received from her is utterly trustworthy. I love the Christmas club!

I question, however, whether that Deposit includes compulsory service hours. Perhaps we should err on the side of caution, and not ourselves narrow the path to Christ.

I am, however, persuaded to move to Chicago!

God love you and keep you all.

Dwight Smith,
Catholic Worker

Friday, May 21, 2010

Multi-Million Dollar Homeless Help Program Ignored?

Today was an important day for the families of the mentally ill in Santa Ana. Senator Correa, my personal hero in the Senate, asked for our input and I'd like to share most of the issues I shared with him. I'm not sure I can forgive an ongoing tragedy perpetrated upon homeless children, so I have decided to bring certain facts to light in order that those children neglected might one day obtain the redress which could make their forgiveness possible.

To wit:

I have grave misgivings about the way Prop.63 funds were used by the OC Board of Supervisors and by Providence Corporation.

Virtually all the families housed at the Catholic Worker in December 2007 were temporarily sheltered at the Armory when our bathroom floors forced a renovation. Two months later Ms. Kelly Lupro, OC Director of Homeless Prevention, asked to "transfer" over 100 people back to my back yard. When I declined, saying six years of abdication was enough, one or more children in each family were found to conform to Prop. 63 guidelines, qualifying the families that had stayed here for the Renew Program.

While it is my understanding that Renew was intended for the exhausted caregivers of profoundly mentally ill children, it is probably far too expensive to serve as a substitute for the armory. That expense will only multiply when the Program is applied to the homeless, drug-addicted criminal parents of fairly normal children.

The people I cared for for six years for a little under $600,000.00, none of it government money, have now cost the State over $2,300,000.00 for only half that time, and with less than half the families remaining.

I was unaware that the boundary of Prop. 63 had been stretched all the way to simple "homeless prevention." I was on the steering committee and I know we never intended for the law to remedy the situation of the ordinary homeless family. No such outreach was ever conducted, police agencies were never so advised, the voters didn't know or intend for this to be shelter program. It was, first and foremost, a housing first initiative for the mentally ill.

Had the program been used properly, the children of drug addicts would not be receiving family therapy while high. If you examine a geographic distribution of intake on the Renewal Program as funded by Prop. 63, you will find a statistically impossible concentration of 316 Cypress as a prior address.

This is because the OC Board, then as now, is adamant about not sheltering children.

At this moment, while CSA is still claiming 849 emergency shelter beds in the OC, and has so advised first responders, there are really only 183 beds funded, and these are all domestic violence beds. Non-profit does not mean not-paid! Not paid = not available. But a recent Public Records Act reply from Mr. Montoya, the Records Manager for the OC Healthcare Agency revealed that the primary intake requirement for Renew was simple homelessness.

So why aren't the homeless families we currently meet every day being accepted by Project Renew under the "homeless prevention" provisions of OC's version of Prop. 63?

Because it's cheaper to lie to the voters and make up both numbers and motives that will promote the political futures of the incumbent Supervisors - who tarnish the very designation Republican by their steadfast reluctance to extend any help whatsoever save the most minimal, while adorning their offices and their resume with lies stripped from the hands of hungry kids.

I've retained counsel to examine evidence collected from a witness for a potential false claims act against the Board and it's agents. Please pray for this effort.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Compelling Christian Service

Yesterday I sent the following email to Fr. Horan, whom I'm hoping has the conscience to be embarrassed at the mess we've made out of "service hours" in the OC. Whenever you find Catholic kids paying through the nose to do exactly the same things convicted juvenile delinquents do, you know you've arrived at the neglected trash heap of educational innovation!

Dear Fr. Horan,

We're the Catholic Worker House of Hospitality here in Orange County, California. We're also the grateful recipients of the work of many volunteers who join us each day. With the current risk of traveling in Mexico, destinations shifted, and we experienced an overwhelming increase in the number of students seeking "service hours." While Catholic schools locally seemed to have initiated the practice in the OC, it has now spread everywhere. We're worried about compulsory Christian service.

We are averaging 1000 compulsory volunteer hours each week, and we are asking everyone we can find to help us "rethink" service hours. More properly, we're looking for for someone, a priest, a youth minister or director of education who has tackled this problem theologically: What would Jesus have us do with service hours?

Our prayers and reflections thus far have yielded some insights, but little, at least here in the OC, in the way of policy directions:

  • In some fashion, the student is often the poorest person in the process.
  • Most of our problems as Catholic Workers are with the compulsory nature of hours.
  • Little pedagogy accompanies the demand for hours.
  • Hours seemed to be valued alike regardless of their value to the poor, the student, the school or to Christ.
  • Once hours are initiated at a school, almost no re-visiting of the process takes place.
  • The mechanics of the process invites cheating and fraud; some hours here are sold.
  • The level of support given to students and parents is not commensurate with the fees paid to the school - the hours are an afterthought, yet still compulsory.

Clearly, assigning students a number of hours and threatening to suspend their graduation is not in the best tradition of Catholic Education.

We are desperate for your thoughts, however fragmentary, on anything that could make compulsory service more consistent with Catholic Social Justice teachings. We hope you forgive the unsolicited nature of the request. We're casting our bread upon the waters.

We wait in joyful hope...

Br. Dwight Smith, O.S.F.
OC Catholic Worker
See also:

Whenever I write to ordained men about serious issues, I balance the probability I'll be ignored against the two years it took me to become a professed third order Franciscan. I need all the support I can get, especially from the Saint of all Creation.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


In this most foolish attempt to reveal and transform the inner work of the O.C. Catholic Worker, we'd (well, really just Dwight at the moment) like to share the faith questions that undergird the priorities we assign to the work we try to do every day. By soliciting reflection and addition to our own attempts at understanding orthopraxis, we hope to arrive at a deposit of experience which might prove useful to Catholic Workers in the future.

The foolish part is the risk that in revealing those favorites to which we assign a lesser priority, we will alienate those who have been so favored. This is our necessary answer to cleave from our deposit of lived faith the chaff of privilege, puritanism and positive thinking.

We are here for a very brief time, and very few persons have regretted a faithful attempt to live as if someone or something else was more important. We will attempt to understand, as do all Christians, how to live in the light of the centrality of forgiveness to the Lord's Prayer and the fleeting nature of our earthly lives.

The idea of our ownership of virtually anything might well be a blasphemy that denies God it's forgiving use, as well as denying God the rent owed as the Creator of all. The very idea that the oceans or the atmosphere can be polluted because no earthly claim to their purity has yet been ajudicated is the central maddening social sin of our time.

It is time that we seek God's forgiveness and pay the rent on this place. In so doing we will find that forgiveness, in all its encompassing providence, is the rent.