Charity begins at home
Couple reaches out to poor from Coastside neighborhood

Christopher Heredia, Chronicle Staff Writer

Friday, March 4, 2005

 
Niece searches for homeless people while driving through ... Mike Niece checks the brush along the Pilarcitos Creek du... Kathy Niece (right) receives flowers and help from childr... Mike Niece brings out a basket with gifts for Blania Canc...

Kelly Avenue, a milelong stretch leading west from Highway 1 to the Pacific shore in Half Moon Bay, is dotted with million-dollar homes and brilliant fields of mustard flowers.

If you pause, you can hear the wind's song as it dashes through cypress trees in tidy front yards. Residents pride themselves on leading a quiet, comfortable existence. Neighbors host an end-of-summer lobster boil on the beach and the annual dessert party is known for its decadence.

The Niece home is different. The gray paint is peeling. The yard is wild. And the activities that take place there are not your typical suburban pastimes. Mike and Kathy Niece have dedicated their lives to helping poor people.

One crisp day in late January, Mike Niece handed out Tootsie Rolls to a half-dozen eager children lined up in his driveway.

"Que dices? (What do you say?)" Niece, 62, coaxed the children in their native Spanish, prompting their parents to remind them to say "gracias."

While children sucked on the candies and dug through boxes of books, their parents -- all of them immigrant farm workers and their spouses -- picked through cardboard boxes and a small rack filled with clothing set up in the garage or selected food from shelves stocked with rice, cereal and canned beans. Kathy Niece helped them load food into paper bags.

Eunice Hernandez, the wife of a field hand, stopped by to pick up clothing and diapers for her children. Hernandez said in Spanish that she lives with her sister-in-law in a shared apartment. When she can, she cleans people's homes or works as a hotel housekeeper.

"All I can say is thank God they're here," she said. "We appreciate what Mike and Kathy are doing for the migrant community."

Along the San Mateo County coast, homelessness hides in the shadows. Individuals find shelter in abandoned houses and creek beds. Migrant families and single workers crowd into one-bedroom apartments, or live in quarters meant for animals.

"There is a huge gap in this coastal area between the affluent and the poor," Kathy Niece said. "It was crying out for somebody to come help."

Five years ago, the Nieces quit their jobs in health care and sold property they owned in Emeryville. Practicing members of the Catholic Worker Movement, they took a vow of poverty and moved to Half Moon Bay to start a hospitality house for the poor. The Nieces named their organization the Coastside Catholic Worker and made plans to house homeless families in the apartment above their home.

"We saw an opportunity to take our faith to the next level," Kathy said. "We left our jobs and the security the world had to offer us and told God, 'We are trusting you. We are giving our lives to you.' "

Magdalene House -- the name they've given their two-story home -- is one of more than 150 Catholic Worker communities across the country. Most are in low-income neighborhoods and run by volunteers such as the Nieces, who follow the principles of self-sacrifice and religious ministry espoused by the late pacifists Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. In the 1930s, Day and Maurin founded the Catholic Worker Movement to help the poor.

At present, two women are living rent-free above the Nieces. The Nieces have also helped single workers and families with young children. One man, a field worker, came to them a year ago after being evicted by his employer. He and his family were facing the possibility of life on the streets.

The Nieces stepped in.

The couple require that people living with them maintain sobriety and contribute two-thirds of their incomes to a fund that the couple hold in trust until the family or individual saves enough to move out. The money is then returned for use as a security deposit or other living expenses.

The Rev. Father Rafael De Avila, assistant pastor at Our Lady of the Pillar Catholic Church, which has in its congregation many of the immigrant workers the Nieces help, said the Nieces are helping the poorest of the poor in Half Moon Bay.

"They've given up their material lives to help the poor. They're very generous people. I admire what they are doing. For some people, immigrant Latinos, who come here with little or no education, Mike and Kathy are giving them the boost they need to get a job and become independent."

Kathy, 41, was raised the daughter of an accountant and a nurse in Nebraska. She met the Rev. Father Frank Cordero, who started the Des Moines Catholic Worker, when she was in her late 20s and working on her second bachelor's degree, in occupational therapy. She had been involved in the peace movement and was struck by Cordero's faith and resilience in the face of defeat.

In 1991, she was arrested for the first time during a sit-in protest against the Persian Gulf War at the federal building in Omaha. Kathy was the first to be taken away.

"I knew I was following God's path for me," she said. "Every time I've been arrested since then, I feel a peace inside, so I know I'm following God's call."

Mike was raised in Texas, the son of a secretary who struggled to provide enough food for herself and her two sons. After high school, Niece joined the military and was a corpsman attached to the Marines during the Vietnam War. After returning to the United States, he earned his nursing degree.

Mike and Kathy met when they were both working at John George Pavilion in San Leandro, the emergency psychiatric unit of Alameda County Medical Center. Mike was a nurse; Kathy an occupational therapist. Kathy said Mike's playfulness and generosity drew her to him.

"I saw how he related to people. We were friends. His generosity came one time when I had been robbed after getting off the N-Judah in the Outer Sunset one night after work. Mike heard about that, and he thought I should get a car instead of having to use public transit. He loaned me the money for a down payment on a car. I tell people I married him so I wouldn't have to pay him back."

Mike said he fell in love with Kathy for her bubbly personality and, as he got to know her better, her commitment to nonviolent peace activism. They married in 1993. One time in 1994, he watched as Kathy was arrested during an anti-nuclear protest at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

"I admired her work for social justice causes," he said. "I remember being impressed that somebody cared that much about something. All of this was new to me."

The Nieces settled on Half Moon Bay after living and working at a Catholic Worker house in a rough Oakland neighborhood on the edge of downtown. Theirs was known as the "white house" because the house in which they were living at 25th Street and Telegraph Avenue was painted white, and they were the only white people in the neighborhood. The Nieces offered showers and laundry to the needy, and the mentally ill and poor would hang out on their porch. The sound of gunfire was common, and their cars were broken into several times, so they stopped locking them so they didn't have to keep replacing broken windows.

After running the Catholic Worker house in that location for less than a year, they moved to a house at Fruitvale Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard for two years. But the woman who owned the house sold it, and the Nieces moved into a flat in Alameda. They were trying to buy property in West Oakland when they were approached by Larry Purcell, a former Catholic priest and peace activist, about opening a Catholic Worker house in Half Moon Bay. Two days before the close of escrow, they bailed and moved to Half Moon Bay.

Purcell and Mike Scott, a Silicon Valley philanthropist, paid for the house the Nieces live in.

Now Mike Niece tools around in an old minivan taking migrant workers to medical appointments, jobs or the grocery store. At night, Kathy stays up late studying Spanish, praying or working on a newsletter or new brochure publicizing their work at Magdalene House.

The couple said their health problems have made them more acutely aware of the needs of people in crisis. Mike is a cancer survivor; Kathy suffers from an autoimmune disease, Wegener's granulomatosis. During their illnesses they have relied upon the kindness of friends and neighbors who have supported them. The love they have given and the gifts they have received have strengthened their faith in God, Kathy said.

They set aside one day a week -- Thursday, which they call "date day" - - when they don't answer the phone or the front door. They usually spend the day watching rented movies or going out for dinner and ice cream. Other times they participate in civil disobedience. The other six days of the week, they give away clothing and food. They take bag lunches to farm workers. Each fall, they hold a back-to-school backpack giveaway. Last year, more than 300 children -- most of them offspring of migrant workers -- got backpacks filled with school supplies.

Magdalene House operates on $50,000 a year, which is donated to Coastside Catholic Worker from churches and individuals. The money covers the Nieces' health insurance, food and gas, and rental and utility assistance for the poor, car repairs, gasoline and hotel vouchers. The Nieces claim no income.

In keeping with the Catholic Worker tradition, the Nieces eschew government support. They also are not affiliated with one religious tradition, instead relying on the support of many denominations. "We don't accept government money because then we would be beholden to the government and all its rules," said Kathy.

The Nieces believe society's safety net has failed the poor time and time again. They hope to become a nonprofit some day, which they believe could help them help more people.

When the Nieces moved to Half Moon Bay they received a warm welcome from neighbors. One had them over for dinner; another invited Kathy to have coffee with other women from Kelly Avenue.

After that coffee, Kathy said, she and Mike were not invited to other neighborhood gatherings.

"We were clear that our mission is to follow the Gospel,'' she said. Our focus is what God is telling us to do, not what other people think."

Within months, some neighbors went to City Hall with a petition to stop the Nieces from housing the homeless and giving away food and clothing from their garage. They threatened to sue, but were unable to push city officials to get the Nieces to cease and desist.

"I am not in favor of it," said Hilke Burfin, who lives across the street from the Nieces. Burfin's neatly landscaped front yard features large metal giraffe sculptures. She said she is bothered by the untidy condition of the Nieces' garage, not to mention the people who line up outside the Nieces' home each Monday and Wednesday.

"I look across the street and it looks like a garage sale every day," Burfin said.

"What they're doing is a good service," she said. "It's just not a good neighborhood for it."

Mike acknowledges that he and Kathy could have done more to reach out to their neighbors before they started housing the homeless, but he said their mission wasn't fully formed when they arrived in Half Moon Bay.

Neighbor Jim Kruger said the Nieces haven't posed any problems for him or his wife.

"We were a little apprehensive when they first arrived," he said. "In time we got to know them, and we are pleased with the work they are doing."

Others in town said the Nieces are providing a service that doesn't exist anywhere else.

Commander Lon Waxstein, spokesman for the Half Moon Bay Police Department, praised the work the Nieces are doing. He said the police department hasn't received any complaints about them or the people they help.

"It's very positive, what they're doing, advocating for people in need," Waxstein said. "The homeless situation is going to exist whether they're here or not."

Kathy said there have been trying times, times when she has questioned whether she and Mike made the right decision.

"Some days I wake up feeling despair,'' she said. Mike goes to bed at night and I'm up having been used to working the graveyard shift at the hospital. I think how easy it would be to go back to the way our lives were before, because of the resistance of the world we now face.

"But my spirit would never be at rest if we went back," she said. "Dorothy Day called it the long loneliness. Catholic Workers don't fit in, and it can be painful. I am always called to go that extra mile, and sometimes I don't feel the energy.

"I feel blessed that Mike and I found each other. We can share those feelings.

"I can't cast my lot with the world,'' Kathy said. I have to do it with the poor and marginalized of the world."

Mike said he does it for the smiles on children's faces. He remembers a time when a little girl arrived late in the afternoon of the backpack giveaway asking for a backpack -- but they had all been given away. Mike went upstairs to fetch her some notebook paper, pencils and crayons. Amid the pile of donations, he found one lone purple backpack, which he gave to the girl.

"You should have seen her eyes light up," he said. "That's what makes me feel good at the end of the day, the lives we've touched, the small joys we're able to bring, the relief I've seen in a mother's eyes when I give her diapers. We don't want credit. We just want parents to be able to make their kids happy."

Kathy said the couple hope to acquire an RV so they can take their services to ranches where the farmworker families live. She would also like to one day open an emergency shelter on the coast.

"Our big dream," she said, "is to be able to help on the coast whenever it's needed, whatever it takes."


How to help

To contact the Coastside Catholic Worker, call (650) 726-6606 or write to P.O. Box 3081, Half Moon Bay, CA 94019.

E-mail Christopher Heredia at cheredia@sfchronicle.com

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