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Issue Date:  January 14, 2005

California Catholic Workers fight City Hall


The Catholic Workers of Isaiah House in Santa Ana, Calif., and the more than 100 homeless people who take shelter there look to the New Year with a little less anxiety than they did last year when they faced imminent eviction by the city.

Although the future of the home is still uncertain, the group led by Dwight and Leia Smith has thus far resisted bureaucratic efforts to oust them -- thanks to a team of prominent Orange County lawyers.

In August 2003, the city of Santa Ana cited the Catholic Worker house for operating as a “mission” in a residential neighborhood, thus violating an ordinance restricting missions to industrial areas. The city demanded that landlord Steve Dzida and the Catholic Workers who live at the house stop feeding, clothing and housing the homeless or be evicted by Jan. 20, 2004. Dzida, a successful attorney and a Catholic, helped organize a meeting of lawyers willing to help pro bono. Sixteen prominent lawyers met to plan the defense of Isaiah House. “That was about an $8,000 per hour meeting,” said Dzida. He said the response showed how much the Smiths were respected in Orange County.

By January, the lawyers filed a federal suit claiming the city had infringed upon the Catholic Workers’ First Amendment rights by impeding their ability to practice corporal works of charity by feeding and sheltering the poor. Due to the lawsuit, bad publicity, and mediation by Tod D. Brown, bishop of the Orange, Calif., diocese, the city suspended the ordinance under which the violation was issued.

Still, city officials continued for months to put legal pressure on the Catholic Worker to stop serving meals to the homeless and to decrease the number of persons on their premises. The Smiths adamantly refuse to stop the meals or evict their transient guests. As negotiations wear on, the city has been faced with soaring legal costs from fighting the lawyers who work at no cost for Isaiah House.

It is too soon to conclude that the fight is over, but Dwight Smith said city negotiators indicated they may back off if Isaiah House agrees not to increase the number of residents there. City officials were unavailable for comment regarding this article.

Dwight Smith said it is reasonable to limit growth. The eight Catholic Workers at the house are already stressed by providing services to more than 100 people who regularly seek refuge. He estimated that the workers feed 3,500 persons per week. With such large responsibilities, the group already has an unending need for volunteers and donations.

Isaiah House sits at the edge of an aging Santa Ana neighborhood. The house faces a tree-lined street of cozy Craftsman homes owned mostly by low-income Hispanic families. The back gate opens to an alley with mechanic shops and small businesses. The initial citation was spurred by a complaint from a local business regarding a transient. Smith said the neighborhood borders a downtown frequented by the homeless and the homeless man wasn’t an Isaiah House resident. Smith has developed good relationships with the local residents. There have been no recorded complaints from the residential neighbors.

Some men stay at the house, but the workers mainly serve women and children. The house provides a safe, home-like residence so the children can attend local schools and have a stable place to do schoolwork. On some nights up to 70 children reside there. The furniture-free ground floor rooms are wall-to-wall with sleeping bags every night. Those who can’t fit into the crowded house push specially made flat benches together and huddle under piles of donated blankets and sleeping bags. In the summer, some children climb into these makeshift beds in a “camp-out” mood. Winters are less jovial.

Isaiah House reaches out to the wealthy as well as the underprivileged. Dwight and Leia Smith left comfortable white-collar jobs to operate the house, and they know the ways of the suburbs. Dwight Smith sees Isaiah House as a nexus that heals souls on both sides of the economic scale. He offers volunteer opportunities for all who want to balance “the good life” with good works. He said it’s fine if “the wealthy get into their high-priced SUVs and drive here to do corporal works of mercy and then drive home.” Members of high society and kids from pricey private schools are often found there serving meals to the poor.

Because of the initial complaint, Isaiah House has reached out to neighborhood businesses. They recently provided lunch to the local business association. Smith said, “We were received with open arms.” At that same meeting he gave all the business owners his cell phone number and promised to assist with any problems regarding homeless people on their premises -- whether from Isaiah House or not.

Smith said, “I just want the city to leave us alone, and I think they’ll find a way to do that.” He doesn’t believe the city is specifically targeting the Catholic Worker house, but thinks the officials “are afraid that some other crackpot could try the thing we do and do it badly.” Smith said the Catholic Worker’s mission is uniquely self-limiting since they offer works of mercy that are personal and bounded. Smith hopes the city will “let the Catholic Workers continue to operate, and craft specific laws to prevent people from doing similar things badly.”

Melissa Jones is a freelance writer living in Las Flores, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, January 14, 2005

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