For decades, the 54-block stretch of downtown Los Angeles known as Skid Row has been home to the largest concentration of homeless people in the country. While much of the city’s population marches towards revitalizing the area, a seasoned couple has dedicated their lives to standing up for those left behind.
Jeff Dietrich, 68, and nearly 80-year-old Catherine Morris have spent their lives sticking up for L.A.’s most underserved community: The homeless. The two are often found at the Hippie Kitchen, a soup kitchen located on 6th Street, where the couple joins a team handing out 5,000 hot plates of food each week, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Despite their efforts to serve the poor, Dietrich and Morris have not always been popular. They’ve been arrested more than 40 times and have even faced criticism from within their own religious organization. Notorious for their range of protests — from rallying against nuclear arms and Army recruitment to the first Gulf War to the groundbreaking of a $200 million cathedral — Dietrich and Morris have also been perceived as preventing growth in one of the poorest areas in the city.
Indeed, Los Angeles is home one of the largest homeless populations in the country. According to a 2013 report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), L.A. had the highest percentage — about 80 percent — of homeless people without shelter as well as the largest amount of chronically homeless, Politico reports. About 14,840 homeless people, many whom suffer from mental disorders to drug addiction, live in L.A. — 5,000 of which call Skid Row home.
“We’re known as the homeless enablers,” Dietrich told the Times. “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.”
The two also championed an initiative to provide homeless people with shopping carts to serve as mobile storage. Despite public outcry from business owners downtown, a judge ruled that the carts could not be seized, which some considered detrimental to revitalization efforts.
The pair first met while volunteering at the Hippie Kitchen as a part of the Catholic Worker, an organization that sprang from the Great Depression and created a movement of people living in poverty while helping society’s most vulnerable members.
Morris was on a year-long hiatus from her job as a principal at a posh Pasadena school while Dietrich was returning from a trip to Europe after he refused the Vietnam War draft. The two fell in love and Morris left the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus to marry him in 1974.
Catholic Worker volunteers operated out of an old Victorian home, which can house up to 30 people at a time. It is kept scant to convey the sense of being poor, and Morris and Dietrich still reside there with just 12 workers — half of which are older than 50.
But the two are resolute to carry on their work despite a lack of successor. They don’t preach or ask for any federal aid and instead focus on what’s important: Helping the poor.
That attitude is inspirational to some like Father Tom Rausch, a Jesuit priest and professor at Loyola Marymount, who points out that their work aligns with Pope Francis’s vision for the future of their church.
“I think finally we have a pope in line with the Catholic Workers,” Rausch said. “If he were a simple priest living in Los Angeles, he’d be with them. Times have changed. There’s a sense that the work they are doing is validated by Francis, that he is saying the kinds of things they have been saying for years, and that has to feel very good to them.”