Thursday, February 9, 2012

Homelessness in the OC

Yesterday, my Poverty and the Gospel class went on a field trip to Isaiah House, where we hung out with women who have no homes. After about an hour or so, we went downtown, and helped serve meals with another church group to men who have no homes. I'm still trying to put everything I learned together but here's a bit of it:

1) I was pleasantly surprised by Isaiah House. A large Victorian home, it was amazingly clean and well-kept. The front garden and entry with its statue of Mary (?), the large porch and the shade canopy of the mature trees in the neighborhood, made me feel like I had stepped into a quieter, calmer, saner world.

2) There are no paid staff at Isaiah House. Only 3 volunteers, a married couple and a single lady, whose home it is.  They live in the home just to be in intentional community with the women who come for shelter. Most of these women are between the ages of 40 - 65 but I also met a couple of young college grads, twenty-somethings.  Besides shelter, Isaiah House provides them with a safe place of rest where they are treated with dignity until they are able to find a permanent place of their own.  There's no attempt to fix problems or provide religious services, although they do host Mass and Women's Circles, when somebody offers them.  The daily cleaning of the home is done by the residents themselves. Two meals are offered daily, breakfast and dinner. Lunch is usually leftovers. Some of the women were staying inside the house but there were many. many more in the backyard.

3) Often, when the volunteers were also women between the ages of 40-65, I couldn't really tell the residents apart from them.

4) The women with whom I got to hang out were intelligent, clean, and friendly.. Norma was from Guatemala and had been living there for a year and a half. Mary, who had been there only a month, and Sue Ann were native Californians. Do you get sad or unhappy, I asked. No, I was told, there is plenty to do, no time to feel sad.  They had a place for the time being until they got a job, everything was nice, and they felt respected and safe.

5) I still don't fully understand how people become homeless. I am also realizing that I have a lot of misconceptions about the homeless in America. First, just because you don't have a job or home doesn't mean you can get on the Government's welfare program. Most single adults, I was shocked to learn, don't qualify for welfare as you must have a disability or be unemployed; besides, unemployment monies are only paid for a limited period of time. After that you're on your own. For a long, long time, these women hadn't been able to find jobs or the jobs they found would not pay them enough to rent in the OC. Second, these women have no support system, no family or friends. Modern 21st century America does not offer much in the way of a support system like the Ys (YMCA, YWCA) used to provide. All the Ys in the OC are closed, I learned. One of them was supposed to become a homeless shelter but the authorities are dragging their heels on it. Third, OC has no large city like LA which can tackle the problem of homelessness. OC is made up of many small cities, none of whom want to own this problem. They want the neighbor cities to deal with it. Contrary to my expectations, I learned that Irvine has the most low-income housing in the OC and also the most innovative. Not because Irvine wanted it but because of the deal that was brokered when Irvine got the land from the Irvine Ranch and was incorporated.

6) At the Civic Center, downtown, the line for the food was surprisingly long.  I didn't see any women in the line. Later while serving the lemonade tea, I met a handful of women who came down the food line.

7) The men, like the ladies, were polite and mostly clean. Almost all of the men had an indefinable look. A look that I am beginning to associate with mental illness and great physical tiredness and serious health issues.

As I continue on my fact-finding missions of who are the poor in the OC (the materially poor and those equivalent to the poor mentioned in the Bible during Jesus times), here are some of my questions:

1) What is the nature and extent of the problem of homelessness in OC?

2) Is there a comprehensive resource which can tell me for example, name, number, address, phone number, and capacity of homeless shelters in the OC? For example, are all homeless shelters segregated by gender (that is, are there separate shelters for women, men, what about families)?

3) What are the statistics and links between mental illness and homelessness?

4) Do the residents always have to leave the shelter during the day? Why?

5) Why do they not cook their own meals? Why do church groups have to go in and cook and serve? If they can clean on a rotation basis, it seems to me that they can shop and cook too. Wouldn't this be better for them in the long run? Developing them versus just giving handouts.

6) Off the top of my head, I tried to name the OC shelters/meal services which help the homeless besides Catholic Workers of OC (Isaiah House). There's Orange County Rescue Mission which offers shelter, meals and a bunch of other resources (blankets, clothes, counseling, job training, etc.). It also has a blog which professes to give voice to the Real Homeless - Incidentally, it was from this blog that I learned that there's a serial killer targeting homeless men - stories are very sad and moving but the comments from concerned citizens are worth reading too in the story about the woman who beat her parents' cycle of homelessness but whose dad was one of the homeless men murdered - Then, there's Southwest Community Center, not a shelter to my knowledge, just serves meals. There's the Salvation Army's Hospitality House in Santa Ana which offers shelter; according to their website they also operate shelters in Buena Park, Tustin and are moving ahead with a transitional home to be located at the former El Toro Air Base. Then, there's Friendship Shelter and affiliated with it is the transition home, Henderson House, in Laguna Beach; this is one of the few which offers a comprehensive rehabilitation program in So Cal (another one I learned about through my class is faith-based PATH in Los Angeles, started by a Presbyterian!). Yesterday, I also learned that there are Cold Weather Shelters at the National Guard Armorys in Fullerton and Santa Ana. But they are open for 3-4 months only in winter and aren't open rest of the year. What else?

7)  According to the Salvation Army, homelessness in Orange County is estimated at 18,000 on the street each day, Hospitality House is at full capacity 365 days of the year, and over a two month period they turned away 900 people. According to Friendship Shelter, Orange County reported 18,325 homeless in an early 2011 count, homelessness is on the rise primarily because of economic struggles and veterans unable to work, and they always have a waiting list for placement. Is it my imagination or is it reality, there seem to be almost no shelters for men only like there is for women and children. I wonder why? What is the effect of this on men who don't have criminal records, mental illnesses, or substance abuse problems but yet are homeless because of some tragedy or inability to find a job? I also wonder how much low income housing we have in the OC and why is Irvine's low-income housing so innovative? So much more to find out as I journey on, my eyes on Christ.


  1. Hi Anita,
    so many kinds of poor all over the world. You however are speaking about one section of the poor, the old (geriatric?) and unemployed.
    Please do follow up with Habitat For Humanity,Orange County NC.
    How HFH works is all there in their website.
    Typically in Habitat for humanity (in India at least) the perception of the 'needs' of the poor is misunderstood and misconstrued.

  2. Excellent suggestion, Senthil. I'd forgotten all about HFH. I will look into them. Thanks. I'm talking about people w/out homes across all ages, genders. Although, Isaiah House provides shelter mostly for women from 40 - 65 (incidentally, this age group is considered middle age here; 65 being the cutoff for older who are called seniors, not old or geriatric). I also met two young college graduates at Isaiah House, in their 20s.


Thank you for taking the time to encourage me with your feedback. Blessings.