The tents and tarps in this part of the town, most of them weathered, their once-bright colors of red, blue, green now faded, are layered with spots of dried mud and dirt, and billow in defiance of the hot wind whipping through off the coast about twenty miles away. Officially, these are katabatic winds, but locally they’re the hot winds named after the long dried up river that cuts through the landscape into the canyon a few miles up. The canopies are pitched on the banks of this dried, caked riverbed. Lizards crawl around the stones and rocks and trash. A couple hundred years ago, the boats of missionaries sailed on this river, and before them, the river basin’s native tribes.
It’s an almost apocalyptic look today—there is no water in sight; this really is desert country. The air here does something to your eyes. The landscape is expansive, but there’s something claustrophobic about it. A feeling of something wrong. The two-dozen tents are all occupied, and though there’s some activity, there’s also a quiet anxiety. An ever-populated thoroughfare endlessly drones behind the encampment, as if saying, This is how it is, someone else will handle it. Scattered around the site are crumpled trinkets, empty crates, peeled wooden tables, clothing and quilts drying along the fence of chain link. Bicycles are everywhere. Some upturned, many rusted and rotten, two or three decades past their prime. Two men are examining one’s back tire, talking and gesturing intently. This is one of the locations for bartering for things, such as bike chains and other necessities to survive another day. The trail along the river leads to another tent community half a mile to the south. Google Maps has done its best to erase the signs of poverty from its 3D bird’s eye view map view. Its street view, if one were to take the time, shows otherwise.
A few miles up, the riverbed path becomes a popular biking and walking trail. On the corner behind the dumpster enclosure of a liquor store, a man with ruddy complexion and shocking white hair has made his home. He “awakes” early, his bed an aluminum folding chair. Often he sits wearing his visor, leg crossed over the other, placidly watching the traffic. Sometimes he can be seen pushing his shopping cart brimming with plastic bags of aluminum cans and his belongings while wearing sky blue latex gloves. Other times, he parks his cart behind bushes in his little area he calls home when he is out and about. He doesn’t have to worry about locking it.
The local newspaper reports social workers visiting the tent communities every few weeks as part of their outreach. A related article details the spike in folks pitching tents in the plaza of the courthouse, estimating there to be around 500 people clustered in the mall area. During the winter season, flash flooding in the riverbed is a known phenomenon. When three men washed up onto the local beaches last year, it led to the discovery of a host of illegal campers dwelling effectively underground, in flood channels and drainage culverts. A torrential rainstorm would instantly drown them.
Across from the tents on the opposite side of the river is a firefighter training yard, a mock four-story building burned and hollowed out, the block lettering along the side reading: IN MEMORY 9-11-01, a huge American flag draped vertically from the top story. This is the United States, in Orange County, California, one of the most affluent counties in the country, home to five of the nation’s wealthiest big cities. Yet according to the Public Policy Institute of California, “40.8% of state residents were poor or near poor in 2013.” That’s 4 of 10 residents in the Golden State living in or near poverty. There is no question there has been a spike in the number of tents along the banks of the Santa Ana River, and the ballooning number of 500 camping around the Santa Ana Courthouse plaza strikingly indicates the county’s biggest white elephant—and the country’s.
“[N]one of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice” (cf. Evangelii Gaudium sec. 201), and doubtless many do, especially in this rampant age of globalization and interconnectivity. But this is a relativistic age as well, and in the frequent citation from Matthew, “the poor you will always have with you” (26:11), if there will always be the poor, how many is too many? Has the influence of relativism extended to even the peripheral, so that concern becomes strictly the problems of social services, and social justice a tightrope between empathetic immersion and slum tourism?
Peter Seewald, Benedict XVI’s biographer and no stranger to socialism, once wrote, “[T]he religious decline of a people is usually followed by a decline in its intellectual and economic productivity.” Has the spiritual decline of the populace, evident in sinking religious affiliation, closing churches, and dwindling vocations, also contributed to the surge in domestic poverty? Perhaps far too long has been the reliance on the Hegel train of thought towards dealing with poverty, “[T]he existence of poverty is indefensible and there is a moral imperative to seek remediable action, which to be effective is now typically thought to require the activity or intervention of the state.” Benedict warns as such, in Deus Caritas Est, as early as 2005 foreseeing the next decade’s explosion in instantaneous sharing and collective sense of righteousness:
“This ‘togetherness’ at times gives rise to misunderstandings and tensions, yet our ability to know almost instantly about the needs of others challenges us to share their situation and their difficulties. Despite the great advances made in science and technology, each day we see how much suffering there is in the world on account of different kinds of poverty, both material and spiritual.”
In light of the recent canonization of Saint Teresa of Calcutta, who said, “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread,” and as the days of this year turn cooler and darker directly affecting those on the streets and in the tents and drain channels, are the spiritual needs of the economically downtrodden being addressed? Are they able to get to local churches for sacramental sustenance, or can churches go to them, in routine pilgrimages of outreach and genuine witness, to accompany rather than proselytize? Here the theological virtues become actualized: faith, hope, and love can be both extended—and often times received in unexpected ways. Even then-Cardinal Ratzinger himself observed that in places where it seems like no hope or love or faith is prevalent, such as in the most economically devastated places on earth, there precisely exists joy, an unembarrassed joy from which even the secure and the affluent can learn: “[O]ne sees many more laughing happy people than among us. In this sense we have a new need for that primordial trust which ultimately only faith can give.”
While the weather in Southern California remains optimal for those who spend time outside, hence its attraction for those who call the outdoors their homes, we cannot relativize the plight of the poor, ill, abandoned, or usurp the grave reality of their conditions by turning it into ideological or political discourses. Those who clustered in the drain channels were pulled out upon discovery heightened by concerns that the El Niño rains would harm them, those who had no protection, even if the intended storms were of little effect in the region.
But the katabatic winds, the Santa Ana Winds, are sure to swirl up again this autumn. The locations of the needy are known, and to varying degrees of poverty, they comprise half the state. It also does not mean those with shelter and access to food are bereft of their own impoverishment. It just means we can all learn something from each other, and in turn help each other. When everyone contributes something of their own heart to the greater context, which means the capability for all to have faith, hope, and love, perhaps then can a society’s own destitution morph into cities of hope.