Sunday, September 11, 2011

Haynes Fund Speech

My name is Dwight Smith, and I’m with Isaiah House Catholic Worker. We’ve been a project of the Haynes Fund for about ten years, and we’re very grateful. Leia couldn’t be here tonight because she’s helping her sister begin another round of chemotherapy in Chico. My partners, Melissa and Nancy, and Leia and I, run one of the two emergency homeless shelters in Orange County, not counting the Cold-Weather Armory. The smaller of those two shelters is the Salvation Army. Two shelters for 21,000 homeless people.

I’m old enough to remember when there were no homeless people. Hoboes, maybe, but no homeless people. My parents, of course, had a different experience. So what happened? I think in my time, it’s not so much that there was a homeless problem as there was a “We should pay less for mental hospitals” program. And yet I also remember talk at that time about reserving welfare checks for those “who truly needed it.”

Because a few poorly paid and overworked Psychiatrists and a lot of highly-skilled nurses were getting the all the money the State was paying too much of, it was easy to get the American Psychiatric Association to agree to a regimen of discharging the patients to the community, where all of California’s psychiatrists could bill for treating them, but without all the expensive nurses. Thus began the emptying of the State Mental Hospitals in the 70’s.

When, within a few short weeks, these patients proved to be more problematic than anticipated, especially without the nurses, they were simply abandoned. Without attentive doctors and committed nurses, the patients first missed appointments, and then quit taking their medicine, and finally exited the group homes where they’d been placed, to become homeless. Since no one had tried the group home program before implementing it statewide, there was nothing to fall back on. We just watched as these truly deserving welfare recipients did without. Without mental health care, without medical care, without shelter, without food.

After about twenty years of hand wringing, the Federal government came up with the “Continuum of Care” where three levels of shelter would replace the State Mental Hospital. The first seven days was, obviously, the emergency shelter level. During that first week the guest sought work, while the shelter provided "two hot meals (hots) and a cot" and very little else. Guests were allowed to re-enter the emergency level every thirty days if they couldn't graduate to the transitional level by finding a job. The big difference between the shelters and the State Mental Hospitals was now, everyone was told to look for work, so over the next 20 years, what few shelter beds there were used mostly for the merely unemployed, and, as a result, the mentally-ill people ended up in our prisons and jails. The difference was in the definition of “grave disability.” When I worked at County Mental Health in San Diego in 1977, grave disability meant that people were unable to rent an apartment and prepare their own meals, because of mental illness. Now it means they’re incapable of foraging from a dumpster, or accepting an offered sandwich.

Now, there’s another group of people that really didn’t figure into the decision to eliminate mental hospitals, even though they’re incapable, then and now, of even foraging in a dumpster for their dinner, although not on account of mental illness. It’s on account of their age. I’m talking here about homeless children, and I’d like to expose the two faces of Orange County’s supposed attempts to assist them. From December first through April Fool’s, the OC does a pretty OK job. Now that the Illumination Foundation is providing emergency shelter to the families that present at the Cold Weather Armory, the medical model they use insures that all relevant variables in a child’s life are addressed, and for as long as needed. Through no fault of the Foundation, their saving oversight is permitted on an emergency basis only when the existence of the Cold Weather Armory program results in a fair probability of the press getting involved. Since about 200 families are assisted during the four months the Armory program is running, it stands to reason that about 400 are being mistreated the other eight months of the year.

When the press isn’t watching, from April Fool’s through December First, the County lies to the public, and worse, to the parents, and, only if pressed, do their Social Workers offer them a 14-day “once-in-a-lifetime” voucher for a cheap motel like the Buena Park Rodeway Inn. The last family we assisted was unaware that the County voucher plan they were on didn’t include the Continental Breakfast everyone else was enjoying. The dad was actually sobbing as he described how the manager, Mr. Patel, actually scooped up his kids half-eaten cereal bowls as he hounded them out of the dining area, screaming in Hindi. Later that day, an agent for Mercy House brought the family two cans of chili. Two cans of chili for five people for two weeks. Now you might not think that’s a lot, but it’s more actual food than the County gave to anyone else last year. You see, most families get EBT cards.

There may be no better way of destroying families with wasted tax dollars than the EBT program. Unlike food, there is no surplus of tax dollars for the input, and there’s no such thing as “having enough” on the output. While those of us in the real food business concern ourselves with the needs of the homeless and are constantly conscious of “serving concrete” by offering too much of the wrong thing, the EBT program might as well have been set up to insure that every spare dollar, and even some needed ones, go right for the “wrong thing,” and here I’m not just talking about dietary preferences.

In 2008 I told the County Director of Homelessness that I would not be able to continue sheltering children if they could not halt the exchange of EBT funds for between two and three ounces of methedrine, which was being imported into our ministry every month, to be sold on credit. Between the madness of parents stealing away on week-long speed runs and the use of physical violence to collect on drug debts, the collective proximity of so many children and so much insanity led me to conclude that nothing the County did could be worse. So we gave them back. We allowed the children we had temporarily placed in the Armory while we repaired the restrooms to again become the County’s problem. It’s a decision I’ll regret for the rest of my life.

I was wrong: the County was much worse. By fraudulently declaring one child from each family so “seriously mentally-ill” that the entire family qualified for room and board, the County was able to place all these people into a housing project and provide family therapy, while simultaneously overlooking the fact that what they were that they were dealing with the perfectly normal children of drug addicts. How reminiscent of the 70’s.

You see, like it or not, we had established a program that minimized the number of hours these children interacted with their toxic parents. By encouraging them instead to spend their time at school, at the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Ana, and with volunteers, we limited their interactions to just a few hours on Sunday afternoon. Children were encouraged monetarily to do enough homework so that, at the time they were declared disabled, not one child was working below their grade level in school. Now they all are.

Under our care for six years the total cost to the taxpayers was nothing. After four years under the care of the County, courtesy of the Renew Program of Providence Healthcare, we have already spent over four million dollars for the nearly complete destruction of the majority of the children that were housed here. This is the moral quality of the decisions made by managers currently in charge of executing the O. C. Board of Director’s summer program for homeless children. I would encourage each of you to examine the truth of my allegations through your contacts in the press, in County government, and in JustFaith groups at your parish. You can obtain a copy of these remarks on the blog attached to our website at

Whenever things this evil happen there is always a remnant, a group of people who holds for the old ways;

people who invoke Christ;

people who try to do the right thing even though it costs.

People who know that the Golden rule is about using gold to save our neighbors instead of using up our neighbors to save on gold.

People like the Haynes Fund, and the programs they support, like Illumination Foundation,

and like our own Isaiah House.

I’m here tonight to thank you. Because of your support Isaiah House has managed to expand it’s operation to the extent that we no longer experience census problems – we can always accommodate a homeless woman, or a woman and her small children.

In part because of your support Illumination has secured a permanent location for a third emergency shelter for families and singles in the City of Stanton.

So I suppose it’s at this point that we should congratulate your Board and thank each of you for being that remnant, that group of people who do the right thing, even though it costs.

But before we lose ourselves in a symphony of well-deserved self congratulation, the food before us tonight reminds us of another unmet need, a need even Paul Leon, the much lauded director of the Illumination Foundation has suggested I remind you of tonight: dinner

Obviously even with three emergency shelters in the County of Orange, we’re still not going to be able to help all 21,000 homeless people. There will still be thousands sleeping rough.

Believe it or not, the County has decided to do almost nothing for them. No portable restrooms or showers, and most important, no food. That job falls to us and the other soup kitchens in Orange County.

In keeping with the incredible job your Board has done, I wish to suggest their selection of Isaiah House as uniquely worthy of your consideration. As the only all-volunteer soup kitchen and food pantry, not only does 100% of your donation go to providing food to the homeless, we’re also able to enlist the support of the governments’ FEMA and EFAP programs, bringing at least another $1000 dollars worth of food to Orange County’s poor each week at no cost to our donors.

Isaiah House provides about 2100 hot meals to the poor of Santa Ana each week, and about half that many again through food pantries that benefit the Lighthouse in Costa Mesa, FoodForLife in Santa Ana, and through Christian Volunteers at various motels throughout the County, including the Rodeway Inn of Buena Park.

We’re proud to have been chosen for consideration by the Haynes Fund, and we’re overjoyed to join the list of charities they support – charities we believe are truly making a difference for the poor in Orange County.

Thank you very much.

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