Commie Girl

A Simple Story: If you lived here, youd be homeless by now

Trishhad been on the waiting list for five years. They'd told her it would be two. And once she got to the front of the list, she had 60 days. If she couldn't find an apartment that would take her Section 8 housing voucher in that time, back to the end of the list she and her baby would go.

I never asked Trish what she had done to get herself homeless and sleeping on the floor of the Santa Ana Catholic Worker. I really didn't care.

Trish isn't mentally handicapped, or a drug addict. She's a little weatherbeaten, but when she starts talking, she could be anyone you know. When she was pregnant with her son five years ago, his dad had "legal problems." The Catholic Worker took her in. Get on CalWorks, they said, and the housing list. She did. She left for a while, stayed in motels and on the floors of family members. She's been back now a full year, sleeping in the back yard of the big house on Cypress Street.

Family values. Photo by Jennie Warren
Family values. Photo by Jennie Warren

Trish is one of the lucky ones: able to understand and fight through the red tape of the county, state and federal welfare agencies' regulations. She had 12 days left (of the 60 permitted), when, after visiting the agencies every morning to find new housing listings, and finding that every one of the listings was for senior housing, or no longer took Section 8, or had already been rented, or wanted copies of her driver's license, Social, tax returns for two years, check stubs for six months and a $35 fee for a credit check (when it's supposed to by law be $20), not to mention all those $200 nonrefundable deposits, and then rented out the place to someone who wasn't on Section 8 anyway, well, Trish actually found a place. A fireman from Cypress had bought and gutted some places, and she was the first person who called. For $950 a month from this nation of ours, Trish and her son will have a bed and a bath, a common washer and dryer, and new and shiny everything.

"It used to be a drug neighborhood," she says, "but it's been built up."

It's tiny, she says, but beautiful.

While she talks to me, her son plays with a woman, 25, black and profoundly retarded. "They adopted each other," Trish says.

Trish and I talk a long time, sitting on a bench in the yard where later people will sleep. There are hundreds of them, in a place of last resort. "I see their faces, that shell-shocked look, and their kids clinging to them. It's hard for new families," she says. They put the new ones and the ones with the littlest kids inside to bunk on the floor; they make room for the newest ones by moving outdoors. County shelters run only December to April; the Rescue Mission is for men only; at the Salvation Army you can stay for only a week per month. So the cops and the hospitals bring people here. When a nine-months-pregnant battered woman tried the pregnancy shelters, none would take her because she was too close to her due date. Dwight and Leia Smith, who opened this outpost of the Catholic Worker a decade ago, were there.

On the front porch, the kids are getting once-a-week tutoring from various do-gooding libs. "I like houses because I want one," a kid writes.

Twice a week, a guy brings his music students down from Pico Rivera to give lessons. The kids in that program marched at Disneyland. Eight of the children are going to Carnegie Hall—practice practice practice—while the Pico Rivera school raises money for the trip.

After the kids go back to their parents and the tutors go home, Leia stands out on her big front porch. She laughs and chats; she loves this life. She says, "I made a wish on my 21st birthday that when I was 50, my life wouldn't be boring." And with the constant adrenalin and drama of bringing everyone who needs you into your life and your home, I guess it never has been. She talks about dignity, family values and the Culture of Life.

It's probably not the Culture of Life you've heard much about.

Those Culture of Lifers—the dominant kind in our county—are the people who talk about welfare as "theft." The ones who weep for your baby till the moment he's born. They natter on and on with their self-satisfied ideas about all kinds of things, but mostly thundering denunciations of taxes. It's coercive and Marxist, they say, to transfer wealth. Of course, there was welfare in colonial Massachusetts, predating Marx and Engels by a good little bit, because men have always left their wives or flat gone off and died. At the same time that the Right's grand apologia for economic hardship—Schumpeter's notion of "Creative Destruction"—allows that sometimes people won't be able to get jobs because economies must destroy themselves to grow, the flip side of that (helping out those destroyed by these vibrant economic changes) is un-American. It's all about personal responsibility and rugged individualism, they tell me—when they've never had to worry a moment in their lives.

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