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Like Good Friday observances of the crucifixion throughout the world, Santa Ana homeless-relief agency Catholic Worker's Stations of the Cross began with Jesus Christ being condemned to death and ended with him (14 "stations" later) entombed. Father John McAndrew of St. Angela Merici in Brea gave sing-songy recitations and led silent prayers. As a large wooden cross was carried to each station, representing different moments in the crucifixion, many of the 75 men, women and children in attendance sang, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
But the location of each station was loaded with symbolism. In the shadow of city and county government buildings erected to serve the public, lay people read messages about the myriad ways in which the system works against Orange County's poorest, some of whom took part in the procession.
"There are many in the community who reach out," Dorinda Upham confidentially read at the fourth station (Jesus meets his mother), a plaza beneath tall civic-center buildings. "Daily food is shared; help is given. Groups from churches, schools and other charities come to bring a message of care and hope."
Suddenly, the Servite High School ethics teacher's eyes welled up.
"Nonetheless," she continued, her voice breaking, "the mothers who now stay at the armory will again meet Jesus as they are exiled into the streets this Easter Sunday."
The homeless are allowed to sleep in National Guard armories from Dec. 1 to March 31; this year, in a stroke of chronological irony, March 31 was Easter Sunday. But even when it's open to the county's poor, the armory is a subject of some ambivalence. For the past couple months, Catholic Worker's two-story house on Cypress Avenue in Santa Ana has been crammed with homeless families because the nonprofit fears for the safety of children at the armories.
In front of the county Health Care Agency, the assembly reflected on staffing cuts that have severely reduced mental and physical health care for the homeless. Beside the Board of Supervisors building, they bemoaned the minimal care delivered to the poor. At the entrance to the county Public Defender's Office, they thanked those who help the poor and homeless.
From station to station, volunteers and homeless children lugged the heavy cross. A young mother in pajamas, a robe and a pair of Filas toted a young boy and an even younger girl. An older lady with weather-beaten skin wore warm clothing and bathroom slippers as she guided two preteen girls dressed like any other girls at the nearest junior high campus. As a 47-year-old man in a black Boeing jacket limped along, he remarked that he never believed he could be homeless, but he has been living in his car for three months, having lost his job and apartment just a few blocks up Broadway.
On the way to the Memorial for Fallen Officers, the group was joined by a bag lady—probably mentally ill—who repeated religious slurs as people around her sang, "Jesus remember me . . ." But before long, she, too, was repeating the line, at one point tweaking it into a question: "Jesus, remember me?"
For years, Catholic Worker's Dwight Smith has railed against the exotic financing behind the opulent, $107 million Santa Ana Police Department headquarters and adjoining city jail—what one wag dubbed the "Glamour Slammer." The jail was partly built with a loan from the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency; the final installment is due in 2006.
The deal was perfectly legal, but with so many working poor in Santa Ana, using block grants from a low-income housing agency to pay off a loan for a marble-encrusted police/jail complex is shameful, Smith believes. Worse, he sees it as part of a pattern in Santa Ana to screw the poor. There was the city's infamous tent city breakdown in 1992, followed by ordinances that force the poor to move out of motels every month and forbid camping on public land. "Even their blankets are illegal," Smith said. Agencies like Catholic Worker are left to deal with the fallout.
So the 11th through 14th Stations of the Cross—the ones in which Jesus is nailed to the cross, placed in his mother's arms and laid to rest—were enacted with about 30 children, many homeless, sitting on the steps to the shiny Santa Ana PD. After the final prayer, Smith told the adults, "Now you all go on. The children are going to stay here for a moment and enjoy the housing the city purchased for them."
As the kids goofed around, adults lined up to kiss the cross propped up a few yards from the jail entrance.
"I want you to look over at all the children who are sitting on the steps of this building," said Leia Smith, Dwight's wife. "I want to remind you that on Easter Sunday, the armories close—all the armories close. And many of the people in this crowd know exactly what that means. People will not have a place to sleep. Look at the sky, feel the weather, and you notice it is cold, even though it may be the end of March. And we invite you to continue to ask some questions: Why—in a county that can afford a marble-covered building—are there men and women and children who have to sleep outside, exposed to the elements, for any reason at all?"
"Thank you for those words," yelled the bag lady.