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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.

January 16, 2005|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 Assn.

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The city rescinded the ordinance after the lawsuit was filed, but shelter attorneys say they will not drop the lawsuit until they are assured the shelter can continue its work.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

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 requirements.

City Councilman Jose Solorio thinks an informal, tenuous detente 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 safety.

"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."

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