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Berkeley Homeless Advocate Wins Jefferson Award for Public Service

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday September 24, 2009 - 09:13:00 AM
JC Orton founded the nonprofit Night on the Streets program to provide services to the homeless.
Riya Bhattacharjee
JC Orton founded the nonprofit Night on the Streets program to provide services to the homeless.

JC Orton doesn’t fit the stereotype of a homeless advocate.  

A burly man with a bushy white beard, clad in a black shirt, army-green vest, and a black fedora, with a wingnut hanging from a chain around his neck, he looks more like a street-smart Santa Claus who just rode into town on a Harley. 

But for the hundreds of homeless who sleep outside the storefronts on Shattuck Avenue or wander aimlessly on Telegraph, he is their savior. 

Orton recently received the Bay Area’s Jefferson Award for Public Service as a nod to his dedication to Berkeley’s poor, hungry and suffering, and although he has little more than a pin to show for it, he hopes the news will draw more people out on the streets to lend a hand to those in need. 

“The Bible is the most useless book in the world unless you put its words into action—cloth the naked, visit the sick, bury the dead,” he said, as he parked his trusty old Volkswagon van outside Trinity Church on Bancroft Way to help with the 8 a.m. breakfast prepared daily by Dorothy Day House for about 200 people. “Love thy neighbor? Sure. Do it? Not so much. Christ instructed his disciples to go out into the countryside and preach. I don’t think you can let it happen—you have to make it happen. It means you have to take personal responsibility get out there.” 

Although Orton works multiple jobs—he founded the Catholic Worker Night on the Streets program 12 years ago, runs an emergency storm shelter at St. Marks, ladles out soup during cold winter nights and acts as lawyer, banker, friend, philosopher and personal shrink to anyone who needs one—he hasn’t received a paycheck since 2003, except for a brief period when he worked for the city and the three months he spent in jail for crossing over a white line during a march for the School of the Americas in Columbia, Georgia. 

On Tuesday, when Orton’s blue van pulled over in front of Peet’s Coffee in downtown Berkeley, where he spends time every morning reading the paper over a cup of coffee, he was immediately surrounded by a swarm of people who asked him for money, mail, fruit juice or sleeping bags. 

Handing out a $20 bill to J, a slightly inebriated homeless man who has asked Orton to handle his Social Security funds, Orton issues some parting advice. 

“Spend it carefully,” he says, and then asks in a more serious tone, “Did you spend up all the money I gave you yesterday?” 

“I had to do laundry ... I didn’t want to come,” J replies sheepishly. 

“Of course you didn’t ... Of course you need money to do laundry,” Orton replied understandingly. 

Last year, when the state issued stimulus checks to everyone, Orton made sure that all his clients applied for them, even going as far as to write and mail in their applications. 

People seeking his help just tend to “find” him, he said smiling, as do various agencies and advocacy groups. 

“Unfortunately I don’t get paid by any of them,” he said. 

Orton doesn’t deny the fact that like a lot of the people he helps every day, he himself survives on social service. 

“Half of them take pity on me because I have no income,” he said. “The last six months people have been coming up to me saying ‘we really appreciate what you are doing and here’s a little something.’ The other day a guy walked up to me and pushed $20 into my hand.” 

He has a mortgage to pay, bills piling up, and a wife who isn’t always happy with her house doubling as storage for sleeping bags, but in spite of that, Orton soldiers on. 

“When I first got married I told my wife I didn’t want to be in a godless marriage. It was important I go beyond the four walls,” he said. 

A California native, Orton went to Catholic military school and later worked in a lumberyard in California, losing his job after his arrest in Georgia. 

When the Men’s Overnight Shelter on Center Street was unable to accommodate every homeless person waiting outside its doors for a Thanksgiving meal in 1997, Orton decided to feed them himself with leftovers. 

“There was only enough food for 50 people, but we were able to fee 20 more people,” he said. “It was like the miracle of two fishes and five loaves.” 

The idea of a soup kitchen was born with the support of Newman Hall on Dwight Way. The soup kitchen paved the way for starting Sunday breakfasts a year later in front of the Men’s Shelter and in People’s Park, which today attract more than 200 people  

Since the economy took a dive, the lines have gotten longer at the free breakfasts, Orton said, especially at the end of the month when people run out of Social Security money. 

Orton says that when people ask him how they can become a Catholic Worker, he tells them to simply “shake his hand.” 

“That’s how you become a Catholic worker—it’s that easy,” he said. However, because the program is not recognized by the Catholic Church it doesn’t receive any financial backing from it. 

“We are just a bunch of crazies running around doing what we want to,” Orton said. And doing a lot of good, if public testimony serves as proof of the program’s popularity. 

“JC Orton, with his nonprofit Night on the Streets, fills in where other services leave off, extending his supporting arms to those most desperate on the streets,” said Matt Werner, communications director for the Global Micro-Clinic Project. Werner has known Orton since he was a student at UC Berkeley. “Many homeless have told me that JC is the sole reason that they are still alive. He either took them into his own home on a cold night or stopped an altercation or helped them fill out a form to finally afford an apartment. Orton has given them dignity.” 

Freedom from the Catholic Church means that Orton doesn’t have to eliminate controversial services, such as condom distribution, from the list of things he does. 

“When the City of Berkeley told me they wanted my help to set up a table to hand out condoms, we were able to say yes,” Orton said. “If we were being funded by the church, it would probably have been a no-no.” 

Orton’s job has not always been rewarding—he’s had his windshield broken, found himself in the middle of a knife fight and ben punched on his way to pick up groceries for his pantry. 

“A number of people have problems with what we do,” he said. “You can’t please everyone all the time.”