The Franciscan Workers plan to revitalize a Salinas neighborhood around a successful soup kitchen.

Poor People Power: Photo by Jane Morba.

No one wants to end up on Soledad Street. Located literally on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, in Salinas’ old Chinatown neighborhood, it’s desolate and dirty. Forgotten buildings line the narrow street: an abandoned Chinese restaurant, a pool hall, a boarded-up cantina, a couple of empty, overgrown lots. There’s also the Victory Mission and the old Green Gold Inn, which houses a transitional living program for men, and Dorothy’s Place soup kitchen.

Every day, whether it’s hot and windy or cold and rainy, homeless and hungry men and women shuffle up and down the street. Some sleep in their cars; others set up camp near the tracks until the cops come and clear them out. And every day, they know they will receive a free breakfast and lunch at Dorothy’s, along with a place to shower, wash their clothes, watch television or visit with old friends, and receive free medical attention from volunteer doctors and nurses.

These are all vital services, and the Franciscan Workers who run the program should get a special place in paradise for this beautiful thing that they do.

But it isn’t enough, says Robert Smith, who helped start the soup kitchen some 23 years ago.

“That’s the great failing of Dorothy’s Place: We can’t liberate people,” Smith says. “We can decrease the misery index. But we have to liberate folks.”

It’s a Friday afternoon, around 1:30pm, and most of Dorothy’s “guests” have already filed through the lunch lines. Smith sits in a small office with yellow walls that are covered with photographs—of Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, Mother Teresa, Paramahansa Yogananda, the Dali Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela, among many others.

“If you look up, I’m encircled by all my heroes,” he explains. “They keep saying, ‘A life worth living is a life of service.’”

Smith’s about to meet with an architect for his first look at drawings that show a new, redeveloped Soledad Street that would include a cultural center, low-income housing, a culinary arts school, restaurants and other businesses, a community garden and courtyards. A week from today, he’s going to start selling his vision to the public. It won’t be easy. Smith’s got to convince his neighbors, city officials and the rest of the Salinas community that the city’s poor present an opportunity for economic revitalization.

He calls it a “village,” and it includes arts and culture as well as a spiritual component. This new community would honor the heritage of the old Chinatown, and would be committed to “fostering a community commitment to justice, equality and nonviolence.”

“And I haven’t told anyone about the mini-golf course, yet,” Smith jokes.

“Now, obviously, some people will think I’m crazy. But I don’t think there’s a better place to be than off the deep end.”

Smith wears blue cabby cap, black jeans and red suspenders, sandals over green socks and a gray cardigan over a T-shirt that quotes Gandhi: “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” A silver necklace engraved with what Smith calls “the tree of life” hangs on a black cord around his neck.

He speaks softly and sincerely, and his eyes shine from behind round, black plastic frames. Some horribly jaded soul might be able to listen to Smith and say Smith didn’t inspire him. But I’d bet he’d be lying.

“The poor are special,” Smith says. “The community needs to plan for them. If John Steinbeck was alive, he’d call them ‘characters.’ That’s part of what community is.

“I believe the poor are special,” he repeats. “I can see how we are supposed to be as a people; I can imagine paradise, if you will. I believe we should strive towards building that.”

On April 7, 1982, a handful of volunteers began serving sandwiches to homeless and hungry people in an empty lot on Soledad Street. Those first 65 egg salad sandwiches have multiplied. Last year, Dorothy’s served 105,000 meals, Smith says.

The center is run by the Franciscan Workers, a nonprofit group co-founded by Smith.

“We wanted to find some avenue of service,” Smith recalls. “At that point it was easy to see there were a lot of homeless people on Soledad and in the 100 block of Main Street.”

The group’s mission is “to live, to love, to work together in harmony, to serve the marginalized, to create partnerships which are mutually liberating with respect and dignity for all, in the spirit of St. Francis and Dorothy Day.” Day founded the Catholic Worker’s Movement and served the poor in New York City from 1933 until her death in 1980.

In 1996, the center opened in its current location at 30 Soledad St., which was never intended to be a permanent home. It could close next year if the city and neighboring community can’t agree on a plan to revitalize Soledad Street.

The building is owned by a nonprofit called Wheel of Hope, made up of Franciscan workers and members of the Salinas Buddhist Temple, which is in the same neighborhood as Dorothy’s Place. It took some convincing to reach an agreement between the city, the Temple and the Franciscan workers.

The center’s use permit expires in December 2006.

“After that,” Smith says, “the Buddhist Temple has veto power. That’s not necessarily bad. They are not our enemies. The city did promise them we would only be temporarily located on the street. The flip side is there is no community who would want us to move into their neighborhood.”

Earlier this spring, the city’s redevelopment agency began meeting with neighbors—nearby property owners, members of the Buddhist Temple, CSU Monterey Bay service learning professors and Franciscan workers—to discuss the future of Soledad Street and the surrounding area. Don Reynolds, the city’s redevelopment project manager, says the meetings will continue. He says the next step could be a “marketing study,” funded by the city, property owners and other stakeholders to determine how to attract developers.

On April 29 and 30, Dorothy’s Place partnered with CSUMB’s Service Learning Institute to present a two-day event, “Imagining a New Neighborhood On and Around Soledad Street.”

Friday kicked off with a soup line forum at the Buddhist Temple talks by state Assemblyman Simón Salinas, Mayor Anna Caballero, redevelopment project manager Reynolds and former Dorothy’s guest Rick Slone, who’s now a Buddhist priest.

The next day, university students and community members painted, cleaned, planted flowers and turned a vacant lot into a softball diamond to beautify the street.

Elected officials stand in a soup line next to homeless people. They eat beef and vegetable soup and garlic bread, and then they listen to visions for the street. Architect’s drawings depict Smith’s dream of a new Soledad Street, anchored by a Salinas Community Culture Center on the south end and the Tom Joad Center on the north end. The Culture Center would include an artist- and writer-in-residence program and apartments, along with classrooms and project galleries, service learning student programs, seasonal camps and workshops.

The Tom Joad Center, named after the Grapes of Wrath character, would be the new home of Dorothy’s Place, and would include an expanded health care clinic, a computer lab and library, an activity room, an emergency shelter for women, children and families, a garden and a meditation room. The new center would work in collaboration with other agencies to offer emergency food, mental health services, recovery programs, literacy and GED opportunities and job training.

Other new services and buildings along Soledad Street would include senior apartments, a women’s residential alcohol and drug treatment center, a transitional living program for men, low-income apartments, a day care center, a culinary arts and hospitality school (offering classes in food handling, cooking, restaurant service and management, and serving the men and women in transitional programs), two new cafés run by students and graduates of the culinary arts school, a youth center, the Victory Mission men’s shelter, and an organic community garden and park.

Of course this all costs money. But, Smith says, the dollar amount “is almost beside the point.”

“The question is what do we want for our neighborhood and our community of Salinas,” he tells dozens of forum attendees. He says as a boy, he was inspired by President Kennedy, who in 1961 announced to the US his goal to send a man to the moon.

“Summoning our collective will we went to the moon,” Smith says. “By summoning our collective will we can accomplish and, in fact, transform a place of neglect into a place of beauty. We can do incredible things. Remember that it is our imagination that is the door, the key to the next step. Do not be afraid of this opportunity.”

The city’s Reynolds, who has been working with neighbors to develop a new Soledad Street since October, says, “I’ve invested my heart in it. And I think the city has its heart in it.”

The differing ideas for the street don’t line up yet, Reynolds is quick to add, but he says he’ll continue to hold monthly meetings with interested parties.

“Yes, we need a vision, and that takes dreams and hopes,” he says. “But it’s my job to get the shovel in the ground. We have a formidable job to do.”

CSUMB’s School of Business will soon start a hospitality program, and the university’s Service Learning Institute professors say this will present another opportunity for the school to partner with Dorothy’s and the rest of the Chinatown community. The university is also looking into applying for federal grants that could be used to revitalize the community.

And when the talk turns to building low-income housing, a Housing Authority spokesperson at the soup line forum says, “We’re in.”

Rick Slone lived on the streets for about three months in 1989, after moving from Missouri to Salinas.

He speaks slowly and his words are measured. At times, he sounds close to tears. He points to benches at bus stops, designed to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them, and “for restaurant patrons only” signs on café bathrooms.

“Hearing these messages day in and day out, they start to sound like, ‘You don’t deserve to sleep,’” he says. “‘You don’t deserve to pee. You don’t deserve to be alive.’ You being to feel a little less than human.

“To walk into a place like Dorothy’s, to be the guest—to be the honored guest—to be looked in the eye, to have your hand shook can restore your humanity. It’s no small thing.”

A few months after moving to Salinas, Slone got a job and an apartment, and on his days off, he started volunteering at Dorothy’s. He also interned with the Franciscan Workers for two years before being ordained a Zen priest in ‘97.

“Jesus said, ‘the poor will be with you always,’” Slone says. “Well, what are we going to do with that? Not just the homeless, but also the poor in spirit, or those who are perceived as the other. What are we going to do with that? The poor are a blessing.” 


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