LOS ANGELES — The draft dodger is 68. The ex-nun nears 80. But on a cold early morning in March, they have trundled to a street corner for their regular trip passing out donated pastries to men and women who sleep near the Los Angeles River and underneath its bridges.
At the corner, they are confronted by several typed sheets of paper plastered to a utility box. “Homeless guy, go away, you are not welcome here,” the sheets read. “We don’t pay thousands of dollars in rent every month so that you can have a nice, safe place to squat.”
It’s nothing new. Jeff Dietrich and Catherine Morris — who defied society by getting married and haven’t stopped slinging arrows at the status quo since — have drawn constant criticism during their four decades of work on skid row.
“We’re known as the homeless enablers,” says Dietrich, who has a distance runner’s wiry frame, flowing gray hair and the kind of intense certainty that wins followers but also enemies. “Yes, we believe in enabling people living on the streets, people who’ve been discarded by society, so they can live with as much dignity as possible. I guess that’s right, homeless enablers is what we are.”
When their journey began, the revitalization spreading beneath the downtown skyline was only a dream. But skid row was filled with the same desperation.
It was the early 1970s, and they joined the small but burgeoning Los Angeles branch of the Catholic Worker, a lay organization started in post-Depression New York by radical Catholic pacifists who sought adherence to the Gospel by living in poverty and aiding the downtrodden.
Today, from a cramped 6th Street cookery - an outpost known as the Hippie Kitchen - lines on some days stretch long down the sidewalk and the couple lead a crew doling out 5,000 plates of hot food each week.
They have plenty of critics, usually people who believe the couple are hindering downtown’s progress by making life easier for the homeless. Sometimes, though, the naysayers are other activists — or even the hierarchy of their own Catholic Church. (Among their fondest memories: stopping a 1990s groundbreaking for downtown’s cathedral by hijacking an earthmover that then-Archbishop Roger Mahony planned to use for the ceremony.)
“We’re happy being the no-sayers,” Morris says, “running in opposition to the way things usually work.”
They are so anti-establishment that they don’t accept government aid, even though they could use the help. Believing that the police enforce unjust laws, they steer clear of calling the cops, even when they have been attacked by their clientele.
They don’t preach, proselytize, seek converts or hand out Bibles. They tend to pray in public only while protesting, which they do most often at the steps of downtown’s federal building, beseeching God’s forgiveness for America’s militarism. Few passing on foot or in cars notice them, or the handful of Catholic Workers lining up with them.
How they met
They met at the Hippie Kitchen, which was started by Catholic Workers out of a beaten van in 1970.
She was a nun, taking a year off from being the principal at Pasadena’s wealthy Mayfield Senior School to work with society’s castoffs.
He was a self-described “long-haired hippie with an aversion to authority” — an iconoclast who had been an altar boy, raised by conservative Catholic parents in Fullerton. After college, he refused induction during the Vietnam War and headed to Europe, assuming he would be arrested upon his return. (“I consider myself a draft resister,” he says, “not a dodger.”) When he wasn’t, he joined the Catholic Worker, admiring the progressive vision of Christian social justice.
Soon enough, Dietrich and Morris were in love and she was leaving the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus for him. In 1974 they married, deciding that together, with his outspoken charisma and her organizing skill, they would devote their lives to skid row, leading the Catholic Worker’s Los Angeles chapter.
Then as now, the movement was spread thinly across the country, operating out of so-called hospitality houses, mostly in urban neighborhoods. Then as now, the house in L.A., on a rough street in Boyle Heights, was a rickety old Victorian donated to the cause. Shared by up to 30 workers, it was kept threadbare to increase the sense of being poor, and because what little money that trickled in from donations went almost exclusively to food for skid row.
The Catholic Worker movement has always held that society is trapped by misguided priorities that make the problem of homelessness worse. So Dietrich and Morris railed against any institution they felt ran contrary to Christ’s teachings. They protested nuclear arms, blockaded Army recruitment centers, spilled blood and oil on the steps of the federal building before the first Gulf War. (Asked how many times they have been arrested, they say more than 40 but note that they can’t be entirely sure because they have stopped counting.)
Love and danger
For the most part, the homeless they help are extremely thankful for the workers. “I would be dead without the hippies,” says a woman sitting on a bench outside the soup kitchen. She won’t give her name because she has AIDS and fears being beaten on the streets if word of her illness were in a newspaper. “How can I not love these people?”
Still, danger always lurks. Dietrich has been spat upon, threatened with knives and knocked out by a stiff punch. Morris recently had to confront a man menacing the soup line with a piece of wood that looked like a bat.
And time is having its way, making the work more difficult. Dietrich walks with a limp, and on occasion his back locks up. This month, Morris will be 80. She is full of enough energy that she recently drove to Nevada and protested the use of drones outside a military base.
But she is also growing stooped; arthritis gnaws at her legs, and she spends as much time as possible sitting.
These days, a hard question is often asked at the Hippie Kitchen: What will happen when Dietrich and Morris are gone?
Only 12 workers still live in the old Victorian. Half are older than 50.
They don’t want the burden of taking over.
The younger ones simply aren’t ready and may never be.