2021 marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Catholic Worker Hospitality House. In our February letter we wrote about how Kate and I started the house, the people who were invaluable in its foundation, and how we have continued the work over the years. In this letter I want to talk about the work itself, how it started and grew, and our hopes for the future.
At Catholic Worker Hospitality House we are committed to the daily practice of the Works of Mercy. To that end we operate a free dining room five mornings a week, a year-round homeless shelter, three affordable housing units, and a transitional house for individuals coming out of prison. It’s a fairly impressive list of projects for such a small organization (he said not so humbly), but how did it happen? How did all these service projects grow from a simple house of hospitality?
When we were dreaming about starting a Catholic Worker House there were two things we knew for sure: we would offer hospitality to those in need and we would operate a free dining room. During our time at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, I developed a love of working at a free dining room and wanted to start one of our own. I know it’s best to be open to the needs of the community and not impose one’s own selfish interests, but this selfish impulse has had very positive rewards. The dining room allowed us to get familiar with the people and needs of the community. All of the projects we now operate grew out of our work at the dining room.
While we had a desire to start a dining room, a big concern was finding a place where we could actually operate said dining room. Luckily our geographical parish was St. Bruno’s Catholic Church and even luckier was the fact that Fr. Ron Burke was the pastor. Fr. Burke had spent his priestly career not only administering the sacraments, but also working to create a more just and equitable world for the poor and outcast. When we approached him with the proposal of using a building on parish grounds for a dining room he was very supportive of the idea, but said we would need approval from the parish council. When some members of the parish council raised doubts regarding the wisdom of our proposal, it was Fr. Burke’s vocal support that swayed the council to allow us to open our dining room. The most vocal opponent was long-time parishioner Helen Geyer. I remember her muttering, “What a stupid idea.” But once she got to know the folks we serve and saw that we operated a nice program, she became one of our biggest supporters. Over the years there have been many parishioners and neighbors who were initially opposed to our work, but who later became very supportive. We are so thankful for the support and hospitality St. Bruno’s has shown us over the years as it has enabled us to be of service to those in need in our community.
After operating the dining room for a couple of years, the new pastor, Fr. Rene Gomez, asked us to attend a meeting regarding the issue of homeless people sleeping in the church at night. The problem arose from the parish hosting Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, a particularly Catholic form of piety in which the Blessed Sacrament (consecrated communion wafer) is displayed in a monstrance with at least one person always in prayer before it. Once it became known that the church was always open, homeless individuals started seeking refuge there at night. To the great credit of the parish leadership their attitude was, “How can we worship the Body of Christ on one hand and then turn around and kick out the body of Christ in our midst?” The solution we offered was for the parish to allow Catholic Worker to operate (and pay for) a homeless shelter out of the same building we ran the dining room. That way the Body of Christ could be honored in both forms while keeping the church sanctuary reserved for Adoration and Masses. Our proposal was accepted and in a short time we were operating a homeless shelter for eight adults every night.
For the next couple of years we continued operating both the dining room and homeless shelter. But with the affordable housing crisis in the Bay Area becoming ever more severe I started noticing the same folks rotating through our shelter. They would stay with us for a while, then rotate through one or more of the county shelters, maybe camp for a while or stay with a friend, but rarely, if ever, finding permanent affordable housing. It was especially galling to see folks working full-time or receiving a pension who could not find permanent affordable housing. We started thinking that maybe we could create some of that needed housing.
My initial idea was to rent a house in the area that would provide stable affordable housing. We envisioned folks paying a portion of the rent and also volunteering in the community. We received a grant from Philanthropic Ventures Foundation to subsidize the rent on the house and found a landlord willing to rent to us. The project worked well for three years with the residents proving themselves good tenants and roommates. Those residents who were physically able also did a good amount of community service. However, it became apparent that this model was not financially sustainable as it was dependent upon receiving grants to keep the housing going. While the project didn’t work out as I imagined, we did learn that we could operate affordable housing if we could make it financially feasible. As we were coming to these realizations our house at 672 Second Ave became available for housing those we serve.
Using the Second Ave house proved an ideal way of creating permanent affordable housing in the community, as we owned the building. We only needed to cover the expenses of taxes, insurance, and utilities. A very modest rent from each resident, based on each one’s ability to pay, could easily cover these expenses; no grant would be needed to make this project feasible. So in 2007 we opened the house for permanent affordable housing for some of our dining room and shelter guests. We all need and deserve dignified dependable housing as well as meaningful relationships, and the Second Ave house provides just that that for the residents. The project proved such a success that a few years later the Redwood City Catholic Worker gave us money to purchase another house to expand this work, thus Chapman House in South San Francisco came into existence. We now had two houses that provided permanent affordable housing for some of the folks we serve. When someone moves into the house they feel like they have won the lottery. “You mean I get to live in this nice house…for this little rent…permanently?” One resident of Chapman House who had been homeless for the fifteen years I had known him kept asking me when he had to move out. “As long as you pay rent and are a good roommate you have a home.”
In 2012 we were once again able to expand the housing we provide. We had received a bequest by long-time volunteer Tony Olivas of a four-unit apartment building on Rollins Rd in Burlingame. For the next year we operated the house with the tenants we inherited, mostly working class individuals. But in 2013 we decided to sell the building as it became clear that maintenance issues would make it an ongoing financial drain and I also wanted to focus my energy and our resources on housing folks who wouldn’t be able to find housing elsewhere. Kate agreed to selling the apartment building ONLY if we bought a house for a young family who lived there. At the time they had three young children, one with special needs, and were living in a one-bedroom apartment. We wanted to assist them as they had been so kind in caring for Tony Olivas during his final illness. Also it felt right to assist a young family get into stable affordable housing as we had been assisted when we were newly married. With the money from the sale of the apartment building we were able to purchase a very cute three-bedroom house in San Bruno for the family, as well as add on another bedroom, bathroom, and expanded deck to the Second Ave house, and pay off the mortgage of the Chapman House (thus enabling us to lower the rent for the tenants there).
The final addition to our work was in 2018 with the purchase of Peralta House in west Oakland to serve as transitional housing for individuals coming out of prison. This project arose out of Kate’s work with criminal justice reform, which included assisting inmates at San Quentin state prison who were soon to be paroled after many years of incarceration. Not surprising, there is a real lack of housing options for those folks. When money became available (once again from the Redwood City Catholic Worker), we purchased Peralta House that now provides transitional housing for four individuals. With Kate’s supervision the project is working wonderfully and meeting a great need. It is always moving to experience the gratitude and renewed hope the residents have for the opportunity to start their lives anew.
I know this letter has made it seem that everything we tried worked out wonderfully, as if we went from success to success in our work, but the reality is that not all of our “great ideas” have worked out. We tried doing an after-school tutoring program that never caught on, the same with a day labor program. Then there were projects that worked for a while, then fizzled out: a twice weekly produce distribution, the above mentioned subsidized housing with volunteering, a law clinic, and a project where recent college graduates lived and worked with us for a year or two. While we’ve been happy with our successes and accepting of our “failures,” we’ve tried to remember that all our service projects are “experiments in truth” (to quote Gandhi). Success or failure isn’t as important as trying our best to faithfully respond to the needs of those we serve.
So what does the future hold for Catholic Worker Hospitality House? Our primary focus is to continue operating the dining room, homeless shelter, and our various housing projects. Stability and continuity are not very exciting, but are vitally important to those we serve. We are also in the preliminary planning stages of building an auxiliary dwelling unit (ADU) in the backyard of the Second Ave House. It’s something we’ve dreamed about for years and with recent changes in state laws and city ordinances this dream is about to become reality. We are excited about the possibility of creating more permanent affordable housing for those we serve. We will keep you updated on the progress of this project.
In looking back over this letter I’m amazed and humbled at what we’ve been able to achieve the past twenty-five years and so thankful for the opportunity to devote ourselves to this work. It seems so effortless in the retelling, but there was a lot of struggle in the birthing and rearing of these projects. One thing we learned is that because we were committed to the work and proved to be responsible and dependable stewards of the resources given to us, support came to make our dreams a reality. All that we have done, all that we continue to do, and all that we hope to do are made possible by your past and, hopefully, ongoing support of our work with those in need in our community. We thank you for your past support and hope that you will continue to help to keep our work going.
In Christ’s Peace,
For all of us at
Catholic Worker Hospitality House