Isaiah House, Santa Ana

According to the latest newsletter from Isaiah House, the Catholic Worker community in Orange County, California:

Our lawsuit against the City is still pending. However, settlement discussions with the City under the supervision of the court have progressed steadily. We remain hopeful that a negotiated settlement will be reached soon.

The Orange County Catholic Worker’s crime? Housing homeless kids and their families without a license.

(Contact info: 316 Cypress St, Santa Ana CA 92701; 714.835.6304;

A January article from National Catholic Reporter gives a good overview of the situation. And the OC Weekly sometimes reports on the doings at the OCCW, like this May article.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the OCCW is one of the largest homeless shelters in Southern California. According to Pie and Coffee, it’s one of the finest Catholic Worker communities in the United States. They are a true asset to the city of Santa Ana.

Dwight Smith, of the OCCW, writes:

Initially, it was our fault for violating zoning laws; I was guilty of a misdemeanor and our “renegade mission” would be stopped, one way or another. We were actually told that children dying in the alleys was legally preferable to the possibility that the City could in some way be held responsible for not having them zoned out of our house and yard in the first place, before they had become so distressingly visible. In hoping to further another transformation, from charity to justice, we started by asking everyone in City government why other counties have social workers who follow kids from motel to shelter to school to make sure they’re not left behind. In the end, though, we figured out the real reason why this county “can’t promise anything:” when we elect a Mayor, a City Counselperson, or a County Supervisor, the last thing we want is a religious “fanatic.” It’s very fine indeed if a candidate is compassionate, so long as their compassion is tempered by financial conservatism. If someone were to turn the baptismal promise “My Lord is Christ!” into a campaign promise, that insane violation of the separation of Church and State would end our support right there.

Bob Zanolli of Winchells Donuts with Dwight Smith of Isaiah House

Bob Zanolli, President of Winchells Donuts, Dwight Smith, of the Orange County Catholic Worker, and some homeless kids. Photo: Mike Benedetti.

The Catholic Worker in South Bend, Indiana, is having similar trouble:

It was looking increasingly likely Thursday that the city will end up in court over its intent to stop a group from operating three homeless shelters in a near west side neighborhood.

City attorney Chuck Leone said the city is not afraid to enforce its residential zoning laws against Catholic Worker of Michiana, which claims its shelters in the 1100 block of West Washington Street should be exempted by a federal law protecting the expression of religious beliefs.
South Bend Tribune, August 12, 2005

On August 14, a South Bend Tribune columnist opined:

The Worker House program is staffed by people with honorable goals, but that doesn’t mean they can thumb their noses at the laws. They need to respect their neighbors and live within the strictures of the law.

Freedom of religion doesn’t mean the freedom to undo years of work by neighbors to restore and preserve the single-family residential character of their streets.

C’mon, SBT, let’s get real. Is the problem disrespect for zoning laws, or is the problem homeless people? How bloody do the fights get when a group of med students tries to share a house in this neighborhood? Give us non-locals some background, some comparisons.

And how are you defining “neighbors”? Are the down-and-out of South Bend neighbors too? Did they just fall out of the sky?

Finally, what is this “thumb their noses at the laws” business? Are these Catholic Workers running around breaking laws willy nilly? Did you choose not to document this other lawbreaking to preserve their good reputation? Or is this closer to the situation in Mark 3, when Jesus heals a man’s hand on the Sabbath, incidentally breaking a law in order to soothe the suffering before him?

20 thoughts on “Isaiah House, Santa Ana”

  1. Dwight and Lea Smith are two of the most caring peaple (Catholic or not) that I have ever known and their hearts are so big that if permited, they could shelter all the homeless peaple in the world. Thease two really care about the needs of others and show it by activly giving of them selves to the needs of others less fortunat, around the clock every day of the year.

    I hope that God has a big storage place for them in heavan because with the number of blessings they have comming their way they are sure to be needing it.

    Danny Massey

  2. I would like to donate some money to help Donna Tangeman stay longer at the Motel 6. Please let me know how to do this.

  3. Today I went to the your shelter, ‘Isaiah House,’ and I really enjojed it a lot. I loved playing and being with all of the kids. What you do and provide, is truly amazing. And I just want to let you know that I will pray for you and your wife, everyone staying at at the home you provide, and im sure that God has a something truley amazing in store for you guys, because of everything you do for others…Am a 13 year old girl, that admires greatly what your wife and you have done, and continue doing for many people in need…

    -Vivian V.
    ~God Bless

  4. Please send me a little more info about donations/items you are looking for. What type of volunteer services would you like/accept and what age groups are in this program?

    Keep up the fantastic work…Heard about this project and your tremendous hardwork from the T.V. news. Please keep my address confidential. Bless You!!!!!

  5. I would like to send a donation to Ron Wakefield so he can continue with the music club of Isaiah house. Would you please send me the address.

  6. You can reach Ron Wakefield at
    North Park Middle School
    4450 South Durfee Ave,
    Pico Rivera, CA 90660

  7. Dear Fellow Workers for Christ:

    I know you are wonderful people trying to do God’s work. I am also sure that you care deeply for your homeless families and children.
    I am the same way and have worked in several homeless shelters. The last shelter I worked had a bible fundamentalist view and insisted that no LGBT people, Muslims, Jehovah Witnesses or basically anyone they did not like, not be allowed shelter or food. Secondly, all the men slept on the floor in a basement. In the other house the women had a staff member constantly yelling at them. The biggest evil I hated was that if someone was accepted into the shelter, they had to stay indoors and not leave the shelter for six months while being forced to read the bible continuously.

    This is an actual rescue mission that I worked at. Now my point is that this board and executive director were allowed to do what ever they wanted to because I was the fund raiser and got them undesignated dollars. They did what they wanted to do, no matter how insane it appeared to me or any other working professional with 10 years experience in social services. However, the only thing that slowed these people down was a City Ordinance that gave specific regulations, expectations and city policies to be enforced or risk being shut down.

    For example, the city said that a non-discrimination policy was to be clearly posted that included any and every city resident being able to receive services if asked. Secondly, the city insisted on fire safety policies and food inspections on a regular basis.

    I wonder if you realized how many people set up a homeless shelter and have no training in social work, justice or anything other then a good heart and desire. The organization I worked for was 75 years old and never changed until the city came in with some rules these people needed.

    Most organizations simple take short cuts because of money and then the next thing we have is a major tragedy. For example, does your facility have a sprinkler system in case of a fire? While this is incredibly expensive, fund raising must work toward providing this form of fire safety.

    I agree one hundred percent in any city forcing all homeless shelters to be licensed. I even support agencies being forced to pay as much as 500 or more, for as much as the city will ask to be considered legit. I see the city providing a permit as a way to save peoples lives and to provide homeless families and children with a baseline amount of care. AGAIN, Homeless permits save lives and must be respected.

    Your friend and sister in Christ,

    ~ alecia

  8. What if you’re not a homeless shelter? What if you have a house and house the homeless because it is your duty as a Christian? Do you think anyone who houses a non-relative should be licensed? This seems silly to me.

    What if you have a county, like Orange County, that’s not serious about seeing that every child has a place to live? Is it better for a child to have a crowded, home, or no home at all?

    I can understand why a group that receives government money, or operates as a non-profit, might be required to be licensed. But these these Catholic Workers are not non-profits, and not “churches.” I don’t think that private citizens, not operating as a non-profit or any sort of corporation, should be under extra government control for doing their Christian duty.

  9. Here’s a related item from Christian Radical:

    [Tenth Avenue Church] is concerned that the decision to classify “ministry to the poor” as “social service use” and not a “church use” is a precedent-setting decision. Although the church has complied with the conditions of the permit, and desires to work in cooperation with the neighbourhood, it is still not in agreement that the additional permit is required for these core ecclesial activities.

  10. Mike – How would you differentiate between a homeless shelter and a house that houses many homeless? I’m asking both from a conceptual standpoint, and also as a practical manner when dealing with city officials and the like.

  11. Here’s an interesting article on zoning laws and churches:

    I know that in California, at least, houses of worship can’t be excluded from any zone, although they may be subject to other zoning laws. I.e., you can’t forbid a church from opening up in commercial or residential zone, but you can place restrictions like a height limit on the building, other design standards, etc. I think things like restricting hours of operation and the like may fall into a legal gray area; I’m not sure.

    I think it may take some sort of precedent-setting court decision to declare that housing the homeless is a religious freedom that can’t be restricted.

  12. I totally agree with Alecia. I used to work at the OCCW. There is a reason why so many others that worked there are no longer associated with it. Many, many shelters are set up to pimp out the poor for dollars. And I wish volunteers would really ask the hard questions of accountability and get over feeling guilty for not being as “Saintly” as the people running these programs. Questions like, why is this place so filthy? How much time does it take to turnover donated items? Why has that family been living in this back yard for the last 5 years? And why isn’t their addiction issue getting addressed here? How are the resources being allocated? There are very real reasons for why some people are destitute. Food and shelter is a good cause. Warehousing the poor is not. And not even bothering to address their underlying issues is morally criminal. Making people live among vermin and infection and treating them like animals when the donors are away is the worst sin. Yes, many homeless are difficult cases to handle. Perhaps we should get a better class of homeless? BUT blind donors and volunteers enable this kind of abuse and whoring by only being superficially involved. Let’s face it, there is nothing romatic about working with the poor. They smell bad and behave worse. And many cases are hopeless. What then?
    Let’s get away from the typical discussion of “legality”. What is morally correct? The more a shelter guilts you into giving time and money, the worse abusers they are. Time, talent and then tresure will make a structural change to this issue and end these abusers.

  13. First of all I would like to thank Dwight and Lea Smith for what they have done to help all the homeless. I haven’t had the pleasure to meet them personally but have read what many people have written about them and I can tell they are very admirable people. I have been blessed to have a roof over my head, but I know that there are a lot less fortunate people out there and it saddens me that we have many people that can help them out but instead they just looked down on them. They aren’t less people just because they live on the streets, I’m sure that they don’t live there by choice but because they have nowhere to go or anyone to give them a helping hand.

    Please send me a little more info about donations/items you are looking for? What type of volunteer services would you like/accept and what age groups are in this program? What kind of programs do you offer children when they are off from school?

    Please email me with the information and keep my address confidential, Thank you.

  14. We just got another long, detailed, negative comment from “christine” about the OCCW. These negative comments more or less directly contradict my experiences there over several weeks in 2003. But I guess a lot could happen in 5 years. If anyone wants to post more negative information on their own blog, I would link to that, but I am not going to host any more negative comments here (unless *really* well documented by the author) until I have a chance to visit the OCCW again and see how things are going. (I hope this will not be too far in the future…)

  15. I have volunteered at the Isiah House with the North Park Middle School Band. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever been a part of. While playing with all the children and taking them birthday presents and seeing their faces light up is something I will never forget. I will always cherish it and Dwight and Lea are two wonderful people. I hope to get the chance to volunteer again. <3
    God Bless.
    Ashli Rodriguez

  16. Liberty Restoration Community Development Corporation, 12415 Wardline Road 70401 in Hammond, Louisiana 985 340 7033, is a 501c3 nonprofit. We provide therapeutic counseling services to substance abuse men and women. We have two shelters for these homeless individuals. The Fire Marshall says in order for us to keep the shelters open, we need to install Sprinkler Systems in our shelters. We cannot afford the systems and really need them donated to us, or funds made available to us. Please help us.

  17. Lea and Dwight Smith are our local angels on the front lines of need and rescuing the hungry, homeless and abandoned children, our brothers and sisters needing food and shelter. Where do you go when you need a friend? Yes, the Orange County Catholic worketr. Please take a moment and volunteer and often send them donations. Help feed the hungary it will make you feel good. Chuck Anderson

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