Solving the problem of homelessness is the same as solving any other problem: first, you have to admit that there is a problem.
And, make no mistake, there is a problem, and I’ve seen it firsthand. For the past 37 years, my work as an advocate for the homeless, and I’ve found them in our smallest rural towns, our largest cities and everything in between. It doesn’t matter if the organization tackling the problem is public or private; the best solution follows the same outline. Now they’ve become the latest outsiders demonized by conservatives.
It starts by cultivating empathy toward those without a roof over heads. Losing a home isn’t the result of addiction, the sudden onset of a catastrophic illness or simply being too lazy to find a job. More than 60 percent of the U.S. citizens say they couldn’t cover an unexpected $500 expense. It’s not hard to imagine the dominoes tumbling until someone winds up living in the street. It’s time to take a second look at those people whose appearance causes us to avert our gaze or cross the street.
And who are these unfortunate people? Their ranks include women, all too often the victims of domestic violence, who are now living paycheck to paycheck as they struggle to provide a safe haven for their children. Sometimes, years of abuse while trying to conceal years of hidden emotional and physical abuse. They are the people with untreated mental challenges that have left them part of the MICA community – Mentally Ill or suffering from Chemical Abuse.
Another segment includes the elderly, who in some cases who have become homeless due to eviction related neighborhood gentrification initiatives and landlord exploitation. Some homeless persons are formerly incarcerated parolees who have been institutionalized and never evaluated properly for mental illness. The resulting discrimination in employment and housing is almost a certainty. Even children can get caught up in homelessness, either as runaways or those disowned by their families because of their sexuality.
Next comes converting our empathy and prayers into action. St. Teresa of Avila tells us that “God has no hands but our hands.”
Action doesn’t mean that you have to pack up your tools and start building Habitats for Humanity. Start by finding like-minded individuals who share your compassion and commitment toward ending the curse of homelessness. A group of people can effect change easier than a solitary individual.
At St. Miriam’s, this community commitment toward rescuing homeless people from their plight manifested itself in an awareness campaign called “We Are All Homeless.” From here, it’s a short jump to lobbying government officials on behalf of the homeless.
It’s the duty of elected officials to represent all their constituents, not just those who voted for them. It may be a hard sell for politicians accustomed to kowtowing to the demands of wealthy donors. These donors frequently place the good of the country a distant second behind a fervent NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard.
Faith-based institutions, working in concert with government at the local, state and federal levels can end the scourge of homeless. Perhaps the Settlement House concept, popular during the Progressive Era, could be updated to tend to the needs of today’s homeless It would be a solution born of love, not fear.
Brother Peter-Joseph Avitabile is a Deacon in the Old Catholic Churches International. He serves the parishes of Saint Miriam in Flourtown, PA and their mission parish in Dover, DE. He is involved in various outreach ministries and social justice organization in Delaware.