You Cant Count On Me

As homeless gather for census dinner, county officials are out to lunch

Photo by Jack GouldOn the rainy afternoon of Jan. 26, Sharonshowed up at Santa Ana's Civic Center Plaza three hours early. A homeless woman with no belongings save a windbreaker, wool ski cap and tie-dye scarf, she had heard the local Catholic Worker homeless-relief charity was bringing a big meal to the plaza that evening. Not wanting to miss the free food, she found a dry spot in the shadow of a county administrative building. That's when two Santa Ana police officers cruised by and told her and several other homeless people to get lost.

Santa Ana cops have a long history of harassing the homeless at Civic Center Plaza. But that afternoon was supposed to mark the start of a county-wide survey of homeless people, a census effort aimed at garnering increased federal funding for homeless services. The fact that cops were frustrating this effort wasn't the only irony at hand. After a year in which Santa Ana city officials repeatedly sought to shut down the Catholic Worker home over alleged code violations, city and county officials had just asked the group to help gather homeless people to be counted.

According to a Housing & Community Services Department flier, the ongoing "Everyone Counts" survey is supposed to be "the largest homeless-census project ever done in Orange County." The goal: "ensure that Orange County continues to receive important HUD [Housing and Urban Development] funding for homeless shelters and supportive services."

While more than 100 homeless people arrived for the meal and to receive their mail—about 500 homeless people use Catholic Worker's address—not a single census taker showed up for the meal.

As Sharon complained about her earlier confrontation with the cops, a Santa Ana police cruiser drove by, the officers inside checking out the food line. "Those are the two cops who harassed me 20 minutes ago," she said. "We told them we were just waiting for food, but they told us to leave."

An elderly homeless man who was standing nearby struggled to eat his steak with his few remaining teeth. "If they don't count me tonight, they'll never find me," he said. He refused to share his name. A younger homeless woman who also declined to be identified said she had been stopped an hour earlier by police.

"Yesterday, it was 12 times," she said. "I have no money, and I get my mail at the Catholic Worker house. I don't want to be homeless. The cops always try to degrade me. My fiancť is black, and we sleep in a car, so the police ask us how many other whores are working the streets. To them, we're nobodies. We're invisible people."

The fact that the only local officials who showed up to count the homeless were the two cops who cruised by the food line didn't impress Dwight Smith, head of Catholic Worker's Santa Ana chapter.

"Is there anybody here from the county?" Smith shouted at the line of people waiting for dinner.

Nobody answered.

"Are you telling me there's nobody from the government here?" he asked. "This is the biggest meal we've ever served! You don't know how many e-mails I sent out. They promised they'd be here."

As they finished their meals, the homeless people left, fueled by fears the police would arrest them for violating Santa Ana's anti-camping ordinance. Smith and the rest of the Catholic Worker volunteers returned to their house. They had only an hour to clean up before 8 p.m., which is "lights out" time for the several dozen people currently staying at the homeless center.

The absence of county survey takers at the group's biggest meal of the year didn't seem to surprise anyone. "To get this done, they came to the same people they've been harassing for the past year and asked us to put on a big fancy meal so they can do their big count," said Patrick Vallee, a volunteer who has lived at the Catholic Worker building for two years. "But the next time we're in court, they won't remember that. They'll treat us like animals all over again."

Despite complaints of harassment by homeless people at Civic Center Plaza, Vallee said Catholic Worker has a positive working relationship with Santa Ana police. "We don't get a lot of flack from Santa Ana police," he said. "That's mainly because of Officer Randy Beckx," Vallee added, referring to the Santa Ana cop whose main responsibility is helping get local homeless people into shelters or treatment programs (see "The Force is With Him," Nov. 21, 2002). "If we ever have a problem with a mentally ill person, [Beckx] will help us. Actually, the Santa Ana police in general are really good, mainly because of him."

Vallee, who runs the Catholic Worker kitchen, said the organization serves up to 500 meals per day and 3,500 per week. "We get new people all the time," he said. "The police and the hospitals call us all the time and say they have a homeless person who needs a place to stay. They don't even call us sometimes; they just put them in a cab."

The center also receives homeless people who have just been released from Santa Ana's city jail, which opened in 1995 thanks to millions of dollars in federal low-income housing grants. "We get people all the time at that fancy, marble-floor jail," Vallee said. "These are people the city forgot about when they spent all their money on the jail."

By 8 p.m., most of the families stayingat the Catholic Worker building were in sleeping bags or on thin mats spread inside the house or beneath tents in the center's back yard. The children, who had finally worn themselves out, were almost asleep. The adults, too, were only half-awake. At that moment, eight county survey takers knocked on the center's front door.

After apologizing for missing the big meal, they asked permission to hand out four-page questionnaires to every homeless adult in the house. While there were less than half the number of homeless people present than at the Civic Center two hours earlier, the building was still so crowded the survey takers could barely maneuver through the room. One shook his head in embarrassment at a reporter standing nearby.

"Oh, boy," he finally said. "Do you think this is really going to work?"

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