Friday, January 6, 2012

DFA Speech

Thank you for having me. As you’ve been told, my name is Dwight Smith, and I’m a Catholic Worker. At 61, 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 during the Depression. 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 got used mostly for the merely unemployed, and, as a result, the mentally-ill people ended up in our prisons and jails. The shift in 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. But through no fault of the Foundation, their saving oversight is permitted in an emergency only when the operation 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 while 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 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, instead of food, most families get EBT cards.

There may be no better way of destroying families with wasted tax dollars than the EBT program. Unlike the surplus agricultural commodities program it replaced, 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 or three ounces of crystal meth 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 to them 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 use State funds 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 were 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 Hope school, and at the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Ana, and with volunteers, we limited their parental 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 all but two 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 shelter program for homeless families. I would encourage each of you to examine the truth of my allegations through your contacts in the press, in County government, and within the Democratic Party. 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 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 and their children to save on gold.

People like you.

In addition to others, and in part because of DFA’s steadfast support since 2004, Isaiah House has managed to expand it’s operation to the extent that we no longer experience census problems – we can always accommodate homeless women and children.

Beyond shelter, the meal we’re enjoying tonight obligates me to remind you of the part of homelessness that is managed largely without local government assistance or even attention. Even with three emergency shelters and two Armories 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.

As the only all-volunteer soup kitchen and food pantry, not only does 100% of a donation to Isaiah House 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. Tonight I’m going to ask you for something far more precious than money.

I'm begging you to consider leading the OC toward humane behavior in four areas.

We have a kitchen, a budget, and willing workers - all the elements to get communities organized. What we need is political leadership. There are four issues that could greatly benefit from the kind of leadership DFA is currently providing, not just to the Democratic Party but to the Country. Having thanked you globally, allow me to enlist you to organize locally:

  • There are no available restrooms in the Civic Center after 6PM and before 6AM.
  • Unlike LA and San Diego Counties, EBT cards given to the homeless cannot be used in fast-food restaurants, denying the homeless pre-cooked food and 24/7 restrooms, many of which otherwise require a token to enter.
  • Homeless men are not allowed to use the computers in the public library to search for work or even healthcare resources.
  • Although there are no emergency shelter beds available anywhere after 2:30, the SAPD nevertheless, in contradistinction to Tobe v. Santa Ana, consistently arrests the homeless for "camping" upon all public property within the City, in spite of the their necessity for sleep.

The DFA has distributed my whitepaper on the COC, the Continuum of Care, which is the culmination of my fifteen years working with the homeless.

Because I am a "religious" volunteer, I don't need to be successful to be funded.

As a result I can reveal the criminal failure that characterizes the OC’s utter dereliction of the homeless.

And I'm happy to point out the “conspiracy” that virtually guarantees subsequent tax-dollars spent on behalf of the homeless will likewise be totally wasted.

So, please, honor me and my decade and a half of failure by reading the COC paper, and then volunteering to organize the OC on behalf of the poor.

Copies are also available by request at, or feel free to call my cell at (714) 469-4603 (or to give it out freely to the homeless.)

Dwight Smith,


  1. Is your white paper posted on the web somewhere?

  2. Not at your level of involvement, but in my work and private life I've had frustrations similar to your own as a foster parent and homeless/rehab worker. It took us sometime and effort to get one teen into therapy desperately needed and obvious, through the shell game and restrict access to toxic parents.

    The shelter/rehab where I worked was fast slipping into sidelines to make $ - like urine tests (we had to go into the john w/the felons, ick)

    It's a problem no one wants to address in cities while billions are spent on b.s.

  3. I was out there no substance abuse but disability and poverty, a bad landlord and failed rep too.
    My time in housing hasnt been accessible and is always tenuous. We must serve the Housing Authority's needs and wants more than they serve ours. OC's anti-social services oppress more than assist and with politics even in many of the non profits many of those most in need get left out. Single Physically and MH disabled have have long been the last ones assisted or not at all. It is no surprise to see how many disabled veterans are returning to join them in the road.

    No one is asking for more affordable (with and without subsidy) housing to be built so rents continue to skyrocket and lux housing continues to be the developers priority.

    No one is asking for accessibility needs and other denied rights/needs to be addressed and people fight the same fights over and over.

    The free legal and advocates are not willing or not equipped to handle some of these systematic problems.

    In this county foodbanks also say no special medical diet needs help even if it takes 5 minutes to fix and even if United Way funds them. No one cares enough to fix these things.

    Until we find private legal to take on some of the bigger systematic problems the same individual small battles will be all that are only sometimes won.

    There is lots of work to do. But Single sick disabled or senior homeless have never (honestly) been any ones priority anywhere in CA. Even the ILCs have a special program for Olmstead but just do duplicate info and referral for those in the road.

    It's all a shame.