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Where the best is never too good for the poorest.

Before homelessness moved from America's skid rows to its down-towns and neighborhoods - around 1975 - few groups were more deeply committed to serving people who were broke or broken or consistently offered them more solace than members of the Catholic Worker movement.

Instead of homeless shelters - a phrase akin to animal shelters - they sprung for houses of hospitality. These were homes where the vision of Dorothy Day, cofounder of the Catholic Worker, was carried out quietly and emphatically: "The best is none too good for the poor."

Some houses are in the large cities, such as Los Angeles and Chicago; others are in such towns as out-of-the-way Bloomington, Ill., a midstate community of 50,000 citizens that would have seemed, if any place did, to be fortified against the usual urban blights.

Jobs have been plentiful here - State Farm, Mitsubishi and Illinois State University are major employers - and the local paper, The Pantagraph, a fortress of prickly conservatism founded by the family of Adlai Stevenson, is doing well in both advertising revenue and circulation.

In a residential neighborhood in Bloomington, the Catholic Worker's Clare House has been a center of mutual aid for 15 years. It opened as a home for battered women, but too many abusive and deranged husbands came around, enraged that their wives had escaped and were hiding inside. After three years of chaos - men banging on the front door at all hours, women cowering in closets or hiding under beds, and one wild man setting fire to the place - the focus shifted from battered women to homeless women or families.

During a break the other evening at Clare House, Tina Sipula, who took in the first guest in 1978, said that as many as 60 families come twice a week for food, double the number five years ago. Between 40 and 50 people - more and more of them younger - are served meals daily.

Sipula isn't much for dispensing theories on why the homeless population is growing. She is into solutions to the problem, not more useless descriptions of it. The solution? "If every church, synagogue or mosque in America had a house of hospitality, we could begin to eliminate welfare," she responds.

Clare House, which is named for St. Clare of Assisi, the 13th-century soul mate of St. Francis, is a Bloomington fixture. Thirty volunteers serve every week and when people need to get rid of some money - and want to be sure it will be used well - they dispatch a check to Tina Sipula. The most recent newsletter from Clare House, sent from 703 E. Washington St., Bloomington, IL 61701, is adorned with a rabbinical saying: "The rich will throw coins over a wall to the poor but will not pay to to have the wall torn down"

That's another long-standing mission of the Catholic Worker: When they see a wall, they take out a brick.
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Title Annotation:Column; Catholic Worker Movement
Author:McCarthy, Colman
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:May 21, 1993
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