[Hpn] Homeless Shelter Operator Says He Wants To Have A Positive Impact

William C. Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Sun, 16 Jan 2005 04:09:13 -0500


January 16, 2005

Santa Ana Homeless Shelter Aims to Be Neighborly

Operator of Catholic Worker, under fire for the scope of facility's
operation, says he wants his charity to have a positive impact.

By Jennifer Mena, Times Staff Writer

Operators of an embattled Santa Ana homeless shelter have shifted tactics in
their efforts to soothe relations with critics.

Five homeless people dressed in crisp white shirts and black pants recently
served chicken breast in sherry with mushrooms, green beans with almonds,
and homemade mashed potatoes to members of the South Santa Ana Merchants

The dinner, whipped up in the shelter's kitchen, was part of a new campaign
to reach out to neighbors, said Dwight Smith, who operates the privately
funded Catholic Worker shelter.

It was quite a different approach than what Smith and wife, Leia, took in
January 2004. After Santa Ana officials threatened to evict homeless people
from the shelter situated in the middle of a Cypress Street residential
neighborhood, Smith sued City Hall to keep the shelter open, proclaiming he
was "following a direct command from Jesus."

On behalf of Smith, attorneys from 14 law firms filed a federal lawsuit
against city officials who had threatened to enforce a law banning missions
outside industrial zones. Shelter attorneys said the city was violating the
organization's religious freedom.

The city rescinded the ordinance after the lawsuit was filed, but shelter
attorneys say they will not drop the lawsuit until they are assured the
shelter can continue its work.

While court-ordered mediation continues to develop guidelines for the
shelter's long-term operation, Smith has softened his approach, embracing
public relations over litigation.

"I'm getting more sophisticated," said Smith, half-jokingly. "I still feel
I'm following Jesus, but I'm following more of his strategies for community
organizing. We want to have a positive impact and less of a negative

The suggestion that Smith try to win friends up and down the street was made
by neighborhood activist Tim Rush, who said the shelter should demonstrate
its value to people who are not homeless.

"When you get past those statements about Jesus' will and look at the hard
facts and service that [the Smiths] are doing, people begin to appreciate
their role," Rush said.

Smith took the advice to heart.

Although the Smiths had long given food to neighbors on their street, they
began doing more. They asked the homeless to collect trash in the
neighborhood and debris in area parking lots. They began attending
neighborhood association meetings, and even brought snacks to one.

The strategy is working.

Mary Bloom-Ramos, leader of the Eastside Neighborhood Assn. who last year
called the shelter a fire trap, has softened her opposition. "There are
still too many people in that place, but we are trying to work through this
on a friendly basis."

David Jasso, a body shop owner and member of the South Santa Ana Merchants
Assn., said the dinner cooked by Catholic Worker was enjoyed by all 45
people who attended, including business people and police officers.

"The unfortunate part of this is that there are homeless people who don't
get enough help," said Jasso. "If they are not destructive, they are OK."

City Atty. Joseph Fletcher declined to comment on the shelter's activities
or say whether the city still receives complaints about the facility. The
mediation, he said, has been fruitful.

City officials said they wanted to scale back the scope of the operation,
which last year saw up to 120 people sleeping in backyard tents. The tents
were dismantled after city officials complained, and the Smiths say 50 to 80
people now sleep at the shelter nightly — indoors, on the floor of the
unfurnished first level.

The reduction was caused by single men who have been sent to other homeless
facilities that open during the winter months. The remaining people are
mostly women, or men with families. The shelter feeds its guests nightly,
and offers meals to others Sunday mornings.

Steve Dzida, an attorney who owns the house, said Catholic Worker is
considering other means to provide shelter at the house while meeting city

City Councilman Jose Solorio thinks an informal, tenuous détente has been
reached between the shelter and the city. City officials have noticed that
shelter operators are "seeing that we need to be mindful of health and

"They seem to have more of an understanding of where the city is coming
from," Solorio said. "The city is also realizing [the shelter's] work is
noble and fulfills a need for some of the indigent in our community."

Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times