The Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Orange County (California) Council has been providing immediate assistance for people just as they are released from jail since 2004 through its “Lights On” program.
The Orange County Central Men’s and Women’s Jail, in Santa Ana, often releases people between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. Jail officials say they release people as soon as their paperwork is processed. This often takes hours and results in men and women being released in the middle of the night.
People are put out on the street during the night with little more than the clothes on their back, and sometimes not even that. In addition, that street is often dark and empty, save for drug dealers and taxi drivers who often take advantage of the newly released by hiking up their rates to drive them home.
The society’s Orange County Council, in partnership with the Diocese of Orange’s Restorative Justice & Detention Ministry, saw a need to serve these people. The society helps operate a recreational vehicle parked across the street from the jail, so it can be seen by those leaving. The program operates from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., five nights a week.
“Lights On” refers to the light on the RV as well as Jesus being the light of the world.
At the RV, people just released from jail can find a friendly face and a helping hand. Vincentians and volunteers pack the RV with food and beverages. People who were formerly incarcerated can get a bite to eat while they charge cell phones or use another phone to call for a ride. The RV offers a safe place to wait for a ride home. Clothes and shoes are also supplied for those who need them. Sometimes just listening to a person’s story provides comfort.
Tenley, 27, of Anaheim Hills, was released from jail for grand theft auto and identity theft. She appreciated the chance to charge her cell phone and get a cup of coffee in a safe place after being released in the middle of the night.
“I am so thankful ‘Lights On’ is out here. There is always someone out here who is looking for women. There was almost a fight, but because these guys are out here, I had a place to go, where it was safe,” Tenley said.
A hallmark of the Vincentian charism is to treat people in need with dignity and respect.
“We really believe we see the face of Jesus in the people we help. 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,” said Brigid Noonan, president of the St. Vincent de Paul Orange County Council. “It is a good thing to do and it is the right thing to do.”
The goal of “Lights On” is to help reduce the rate of recidivism for the newly released and ease the transition back to society. The council has found that people who receive basic services during the first critical hours after release are less likely to return to their old temptations.
The volunteers of the “Lights On” program help nearly 10,000 people a year.
For more information about the “Lights On” program, visit SVDPOC.org/Lights_On_Program or call 714-542-0448.
Editor’s Note: This article was provided to Catholic Digest through a partnership with the National Council of the United States Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Inc. It was written by the organization’s Gary Stevens.