In the chill of the night on a recent Friday, just before 10:30 p.m., a man sipped coffee with cream outside the Orange County Central Jail in Santa Ana.
He stood outside an RV parked a short distance from where inmates are released, next to the parking structure that faces Eddie West Field.
“It’s awesome,” Louis Morales said of the RV, whose lights illuminated the otherwise dark street.
Morales, 51, of La Mirada, had just been released from OC Jail after a day in court for what he said were outstanding warrants for minor violations. He said he’s been in jail before. Walking out of jail this time, Morales immediately gravitated to the RV.
Since 2004, rain or shine, Lights On, a ministry of the non-profit Society of St. Vincent de Paul, has been providing free clothing, coffee, water and other drinks, snack food, reading material, a charger for phones, and a phone to use for people getting out of jail to call for rides home.
In short, sustenance and safety.
The Office of Restorative Justice/Detention Ministry, Catholic Diocese of Orange, helped established Lights On and remains a collaborative partner of the ministry, endorsing and helping support the program through promotional networks and volunteer resources.
Morales, who said he’s married with two kids and works as a delivery driver, was among several dozen recipients of Lights On services Friday, Dec. 7, and early Saturday, Dec. 8.
Morales and other former inmates enjoyed some basic necessities after spending time in jail thanks to Lights On, named for the light on the RV but also a reference to Jesus as the light of divine life.
“It’s like a light for someone coming out of the darkness,” Morales said of the ministry.
Beyond food, snacks and other basics, Lights On provides an instant human connection for those getting out of jail, which is critical for those who just spent time behind bars.
“Research shows that the first 72 hours (of freedom) are the most critical for a person getting out of jail,” said Daisy Ramirez, O.C. Jail Project coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Drug dealers often prey on the freshly sprung, hoping to sell them some dope, Lights On volunteers say.
Taxi drivers often take advantage of the just-released by jacking up rates to drive them home.
And danger lurks in the shadows of Santa Ana near midnight and beyond, especially for women, some of whom aren’t wearing much clothing when they walk out of jail.
“Human interaction is critical,” Ramirez said of the efforts of Lights On volunteers, who cordially greet the men and women coming out of jail.
As Ramirez put it: “It’s not just about the high-calorie pastries.”
Lights On assists close to 10,000 people a year — between 30 and 50 a shift, which is 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. five nights a week.
The ministry embodies Matthew 25:35-36:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.”
Recently, Lights On partnered with Project Kinship, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit that assists Monday through Thursday nights to provide reentry services, said Brigid Noonan, president of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Council of Orange County since Oct. 1, 2018 and a parishioner at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange since 1979.
Project Kinship, which offers support for re-entry to school and the workforce to people impacted by incarceration, gangs, and violence, is modeled after Father Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Industries Inc. in Los Angeles.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing that these guys are out here,” said Noonan, who joined the volunteers for several hours late Dec. 7. “You know that verse from the Bible, ‘Whatever you do to the least of my brethren you do unto me.’ They’re all human beings.”
Among the volunteers working Dec. 7-8 was Colin Williams, despite it being his 29th birthday.
“It’s my way of giving back and helping people,” said Williams, a business consultant.
Other Lights On volunteers that night included brothers Vaskin and Michael Koshkerian, who run Micah’s Way.
“They need somebody to treat them like a human,” Vaskin Koshkerian said of the former inmates. “That’s the main thing. When they come here, I make a joke with them. I laugh. I make them feel important.”
For more information about Lights On, call (714) 542-0448.