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We Were Surprised by Much Work and Harrassment By Inspectors

Casa Juan Diego

We started Casa Juan Diego because we wanted to help the poor, to receive the refugees and immigrants who were arriving in Houston to escape cruel wars. They were sleeping in used car lots along Washington Avenue.

We responded to pregnant immigrant women, battered immigrant women and their children and to fathers of families trying to find work. We wanted to help those who were not receiving help from agencies, are unable to receive help from the government, those who had nowhere to lay their head. Homelessness is still not addressed very well in our city.

We said, Lord, Here we are. Send us the poor, and we will love them as the Gospel asks us to do.

We were warned, however, that we could be arrested for trying to live the Gospel, that we would be carried off in chains. We were warned that local government might try to close us down.

Rescuing the Desperate Is Not So Easy

   We are committed to hospitality. In order to receive people, however, one has to have a building or buildings. The buildings have to be cleaned. And everything can go wrong with a building. In old houses, one plumbing problem after another occurs, the roof leaks, cockroaches and bedbugs may have to be eradicated, fluorescent light bulbs have to be changed, parts of the building fall apart.

In the early years we burned down twice, for which we had no plan.

Several years ago when someone suggested donating 85 old apartments to Casa Juan Diego, Mark almost fainted at the very thought of all the plumbing and construction problems. Need-less to say, we did not accept all those apartments.

We survive in the buildings only because of volunteers who assist with repairs. One man seems to spend every waking hour that he is not working here at Casa Juan Diego repairing things.

Even when you build a new building, within a short time things start to go wrong.

A Swarm of City Inspectors

When we opened our arms to the poor, naively we did not expect the city to run into our open arms with an army of inspectors.

No one told us that twenty-five years after building a new building, with all kinds of valid permits and licenses, city inspectors would show up to insist that everything in the “new” building be brought up to brand-new city codes and would send sheaves of paper with demanded “corrections,” as recently happened at Casa Juan Diego.

Our food distribution which served so many poor at Casa Maria in Southwest Houston in the Gulfton area was shut down last year by the Houston Food Bank because we did not have a city license to operate it.

More Work Than We Might Have Anticipated

   Catholic Workers at Casa Juan Diego, and the many volunteers who come on a part-time basis to help, will confirm that each aspect of our dream to help those who most need our help involves a lot of work, and there is no paid staff to do it. Those who come to serve without salary soon encounter the practical realities as well as the greatness of the approach of personalism. Who will solve problems as they arise? Only we personalists and volunteer helpers are here to do it.

People who come to stay in our houses have babies, at times become ill and we have to find appropriate medical care, or they may drink too much. People have to be fed, taken to the doctor, transportation has to be arranged. Their anxieties and worries have to be addressed.

When a battered woman arrives to take refuge with us, there is much to do. She is traumatized, needs to talk with someone, must make arrangements for school for her children and we have to arrange transportation, make sure the children have medical care, and work with Catholic Charities to see if her status can be regularized.

When a pregnant woman arrives, we must make her comfortable, make sure she has medical care and the nutrition she needs.

On occasion, a guest may take something that does not belong to them. Dorothy Day wrote about the “Scandal of the Works of Mercy,” where she told of a person who took to heart the ideal of hospitality and the guest who was received in the home stole the generous person’s wallet.

Feeding the Hungry, Clothing the Naked

In order to feed the hungry in our Houses of Hospitality or those who come to our weekly food distribution we must find the food, try to work with the bureaucratic structure of the Food Bank, obtain the food with the help of volunteer drivers of our truck, and organize it, setting up the food like a little market for the distribution, and then on food day, distributing the food with the help of a team of volunteers.

We have to keep the kitchen clean and up to regulations for inspection by the City.

We receive tons of donated clothing. Sorting the clothing and distributing it is an ongoing challenge.

Caring for the Sick and Injured

Our two medical clinics, one at Casa Juan Diego and one at Casa Maria, do not run by themselves.

In addition to the great work that the volunteer doctors do, making care available to those who have not been able to find it elsewhere, we must make charts for each person, keep the large number of charts in order, keep the clinic clean, order equipment and supplies, file faxes and other laboratory or x-ray reports or as they come in. Then for those who have no money, we buy the prescriptions at neighborhood pharmacies, and must be available when patients come to the door to pick them up.

We try to take advantage of inexpensive generic medications. One of the most essential medicines for the many diabetic patients, is not available in generic, in expensive form. We do not understand why insulin costs so much. Patients who do not have their insulin become blind or sometimes lose a limb. And so we buy the insulin for those who cannot do so themselves.

Crimes That Cry to Heaven

   We have begun to think that charging such high prices for insulin is a crime against humanity. Why does it cost so much? We are not communists, socialists, or left-wingers for asking this question. We just want to know.

The End of the Line

   In many situations Casa Juan Diego seems to be the only alternative, or the end of the line. When the hospitals of Houston began calling a number of years ago to ask us to take in the paralyzed, the very ill in their hospitals, we replied, We don’t do that! Then we realized that neither does anyone else, and we began to help those ready to be released from the hospitals who have no chance to receive disability and no way to live.

Here again, we found that responding to this need is a lot of work. Someone has to communicate with the 85 individuals we assist who do not live in our own Houses of Hospitality. Someone has to determine if they are still OK, write out a check for their support, and keep a record of the funds. If there is a health crisis, we have to contact the visiting nurses who help us, the doctors who volunteer in our clinic, or the rehabilitation teams that also help. Sometimes medical equipment must be located and purchased. Ongoing medical supplies must be provided. We have a whole storage room reserved for adult diapers. Someone who is able to travel or someone who helps them arrive at our door each day to pick up diapers or food. Our entrance usually has someone in a wheel chair or on a walker or crutches in it. Most of the 85, however, are not able to visit Casa Juan Diego. This is a great Work of Mercy, but adds many hours to what we do.

The doorbell rings all day. Often it is someone bringing donations, but even more often it is a person with a seemingly insurmountable problem. We do what we can to help. We try to respond even to those who do not have attractive personalities. We do not want to be one of the places where only the best storytellers receive help.

While we definitely cannot solve all problems, we can help in a small way, putting in a couple of loaves and a few fish, trusting, as Dorothy Day said, that the Lord will transform them.

We keep the people who collaborate with us in these efforts by volunteering or sending donations in our prayers. We ask our readers to also pray for us.


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, January-February 2012.