When young Dennis Kriz attended Mass in a working-class suburb of Chicago, he knew homeless people slept in the pews the night before. He could smell it.
From the Great Depression until the late 60s, many Catholic churches in the Chicago area, possibly across the country, were accustomed to opening their doors for the night so the homeless could sleep with a roof over their head.
“Everyone did something, and ultimately it was enough,” recalled Fr. Dennis Kriz, O.S.M., pastor of St. Philip Benizi parish in Fullerton. “Unfortunately, when drugs became more prevalent, the churches couldn’t manage anymore, and the system eventually stopped.”
FR. DENNIS KRIZ, O.S.M., PASTOR OF ST. PHILIP BENIZI PARISH IN FULLERTON. PHOTO BY STEVEN GEORGES/DIOCESE OF ORANGE
He attended undergraduate school at the University of Illinois and was awarded a teaching assistantship to the University of Southern California, where he ultimately received his Ph.D. in engineering in 1991.
He volunteered with a homeless ministry in south Los Angeles but thought his career would be fixing or building things as an engineer. It wasn’t until he broke up with his girlfriend that he realized he needed to rethink the course of his life.
Praying in front of Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Juan Diego at St. Vincent de Paul Church near U.S.C., God answered his prayer with a call to the priesthood.
“I wanted to finish what I had started at school, but I was impressed with the Servite priests who ran the Catholic Center,” he said. “As soon as I could, I entered the Servite seminary in Berkeley.”
Fast forward to 2016. Father Kriz returned to California to become pastor of St. Philip’s in Fullerton.
“When I arrived, there were three unhoused men who slept on the parish grounds,” said Fr. Kriz. “A parishioner insisted I send them away. When I refused, she left the parish.”
Soon, word got around that Fr. Kriz would not drive the homeless away. Thecampers grew until by 2018 there were 30 people sleeping on the parish grounds. That’s when Fr. Kriz, the priest and Dennis Kriz, the engineer/problem solver, took on the homeless crisis in his community.
“Fullerton had about 400 people living on the streets and no plan,” he recalled.
At the time, the Armory in Fullerton was the only shelter in North Orange County and could only accommodate 200 people. The rules exacerbated the problem. Without medical triage, sick people slept next to the healthy. Disease spread rapidly. Furthermore, the homeless had to leave the shelter by 6 a.m., with nothing to eat. They landed on the streets with nowhere to go – and often wandered into adjoining neighborhoods.
“People make a lot of assumptions about the unhoused, but they aren’t all the same,” said Fr. Kriz. “Many are intelligent and just want people to listen to them. One of the kindest things you can do is ask them their name. It is a simple act, but it gives them human dignity.”
Greg Walgenbach, Director of Life, Justice and Peace for the Diocese of Orange, has worked with Fr. Kriz on many projects aimed at helping the homeless and is also a parishioner at St. Philip.
“Fr. Kriz sees the homeless as Jesus sees them and gives them the same dignity due to all God’s children. He has been instrumental in building a greater awareness and advocating for the unhoused.”
Fr. Kriz learned that Salt Lake City made huge strides in addressing homelessness. It began with a study that found about 50% of the homeless just need a roof over their head while they sorted out the issues that put them on the streets. Of the remaining half, about 35% percent had addiction issues or mental illness and needed support services. Less than 15% preferred life on the streets.
The problem was that people camping on the parish site could not get services. With the help of homeless advocates, Fr. Kriz learned about the Boise Decision that government agencies could not fine or arrest a homeless person if there was nowhere else for them to go. Staying on private church property meant the city could turn a blind eye. So, Fr. Kriz explained the situation and they moved to the other side of the fence forcing the city to help them. Fr. Kriz reached out to other churches in the area who had homeless ministries.
“Churches want to help but government has to be at the helm to organize everyone and make the process smoother. Government should lead and ask churches to help.”
In December of 2018 Fr. Kriz submitted a community opinion letter to Voice of O.C. titled “244 Homeless People Died This Year in Orange County Waiting on Us.”
His letters have had an impact.
“He’s a perfect example of living your faith,” said Voice of OC Publisher and Editor in Chief Norberto Santana, Jr. “He doesn’t give up and is proof positive that every person can make a difference.”
Fr. Kriz publishes the coroner’s list every month. In that time, 1,649 people have died homeless.
Every life is precious, even the least of our brothers.