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Home : Viewpoints : Editorials
5/13/2013 11:43:00 AM
The problem - and opportunity - of homelessness
Catholic News Service
Mari Etzel, 25, a nurse who works as a volunteer at Christ House though the Catholic Volunteer Network, checks a patient at the medical facility in Washington.
Catholic News Service
Mari Etzel, 25, a nurse who works as a volunteer at Christ House though the Catholic Volunteer Network, checks a patient at the medical facility in Washington.
Tom Sheridan

I live in a comfortable home in a comfortable community in Florida. A couple of miles away is a not-so-comfortable community of not-so-comfortable people.

By day, they congregate beneath a highway overpass. They sit on overturned boxes; they talk and smoke. And they solicit passing motorists for alms. At night, they move to a small campsite with tents and other "comforts." Yes, those comforts include beer and, likely, other intoxicants.

No homeless shelter for these folks. They are the "professional homeless." Panhandlers. Or, some would say, bums.

Homelessness is a challenge. To the homeless, surely. To society, certainly. To the church, an opportunity.

But homelessness is not one-size-fits-all.

Some are true "professionals," perhaps not homeless at all but seizing the opportunity to cadge dollars from compassionate passers-by. Others, like many of those beneath the overpass, are professional in the sense that they seem OK with the lifestyle, willing to live on handouts for booze in a woodsy campsite. Many suffer from mental illnesses that render them incapable of a "normal" existence.

But there also are those whose financial and employment failings have reduced them from a life that, if not comfortable, at least included a job and a roof. Too often this number includes single mothers and children. And the numbers of homeless veterans, often victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, are increasing as well.

Probably because of its climate and still-struggling economy, Florida seems full of every variety of homeless people, but it's likely not much different elsewhere. Scruffy men and women, young and old, patrol median strips with scrawled signs seeking donations. Some ask for work, others say, "Anything helps -- God bless." One guy at least was honest: "Need a beer," read his sign.

Since homelessness is varied, so too must be the responses.

Many parishes are part of coalitions to help the homeless. As a deacon, I've labored in shelters and doled out food at soup kitchens. It's helpful, sure, but it's Band-Aid therapy. Comfortable blankets and hot soup are great, but we should have a larger goal: transform the societal conditions that create much of America's homelessness.

Services for the mentally ill have declined drastically over past decades. The current shattered economy has crippled what little mental health outreach remains. Local food pantries are stripped. Lack of adequate employment -- and in some cases, corporate greed -- has created more "working poor." Affordable health care that respects all forms of human dignity remains just a hope. Racial, ethnic, gender and age inequalities continue to exist.

These are worthy targets for the church and for the Catholic who seeks to apply Gospel values to today's society. The hard-core, panhandling homeless may shun the assistance, but many others -- those physically or mentally ill, those who want help to change their lives -- may not. The church must champion those who need and wish that help.

And in its new pope, the church seems to have gained a new guide for helping the needy.

Despite the cliche, Christians should often ask themselves, "WWJD," what would Jesus do? A corollary now might be "WWFD," what would Francis do?

The new pope has a special heart for the downtrodden, undoubtedly stemming from his Jesuit background. The stories of his interaction with the poor have become commonplace, such as skipping family gatherings to visit the poor in Argentina's slums.

Still, the pope's compassion might be a shock to those who shun the alms-seekers beneath my highway overpass. As a cardinal walking in his Argentina neighborhood, he always had words of compassion, blessing -- and a few dollars for one local beggar.

It's a good reminder that the important thing is not just what the church is, but what the church does.

The writer is a former editor of The Catholic New World, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago and a deacon ordained for the Diocese of Joliet, Ill.

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