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Home : Viewpoints : Editorials
5/12/2013 11:39:00 AM
We can't abdicate our responsibility
Catholic News Service
A man rolls a cigarette in his tent at a tent city for the homeless in Sacramento, Calif.
Catholic News Service
A man rolls a cigarette in his tent at a tent city for the homeless in Sacramento, Calif.
Liz Quirin

An early riser, I wanted to make sure I had enough time to scramble six dozen eggs before I had to meet the St. Vincent de Paul mobile kitchen at 8:30 on a recent Sunday morning to help serve what some called a hearty breakfast.

It looked more like a cholesterol-loading feast of eggs, sausage, biscuits and gravy, and on this day, fried potatoes. It was a welcome repast to the people we served under a highway overpass. The mobile kitchen goes out in the evening during the week, but on weekends one of the diocesan staffers takes the bus out for a breakfast run once a month.

Diners board the bus to warm up during winter or cool down in summer. It's a place where they can literally lay down their burdens (plastic bags, backpacks, duffels or whatever they're carrying) to eat in peace, quiet and comfort.

Over time, I've met a number of truly homeless people living in tents or abandoned buildings, and I've met those who find a spot at a shelter for the night and hit the streets during the day. One time, someone asked a lady where her husband was, and she said he was "working the corner."

We've all seen the folks holding the signs that say, "Will work for food." Some folks give them money because they don't carry around extra groceries. It's easier that way. Easiest of all is to keep from making eye contact at a traffic stop and just move on when the light turns green.

With all of the programs and social services, some people think the homeless want to live that way, thereby abdicating any responsibility from their plight. Sorry folks, it just doesn't work that way. Either we're part of the solution or we're part of the problem.

Maybe we can't change people's situations, give them a place to stay, find them a job, take them shopping or just give them some money to leave us alone. We want to go about our own business without worrying about people we don't even know, many of whom have emotional or mental issues that prevent them from accepting the help they need.

Many parishes become directly involved in helping the homeless, forging real relationships with them. Some help at shelters for women and families, while others offer support by furnishing supplies to shelters.

People who work at one shelter here formed a weather crisis committee with other churches. They respond when temperatures hit extremes to take blankets to abandoned buildings in winter and taking the bus out with cool drinks in the hot, hot summer. This gives committee members a chance to check on those who just can't find a way to get off the street.

One social worker said the "veteran homeless" take young, inexperienced "new" homeless under their wings to try to keep them safe until they know how to handle being on the street. It requires skill, energy and ingenuity.

If it's very cold, folks have to know where to go to find a warm place; they need to learn about places that serve hot meals and their hours of operation; they have to form alliances with people already on the street for protection.

How long would we last, without a checkbook, without a credit card, without a bathroom, without a door to close and lock, without a clean place to sleep, without transportation?

The church, through parishes and agencies, forms relationships with the homeless to offer help, being careful to treat everyone with dignity and respect. Sometimes folks game the system and test the faith of those trying to make things better.

This doesn't shake the confidence of those offering help, nor does it cause them to quit. They just continue to invite us to crack some eggs, share some time and deepen our faith.

The writer is editor of The Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill. 

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