In a beautiful address at Saint Patrick’s church last year, Pope Francis assured those present who live on the street or depend on the kindness of others that the Lord identifies with them and all who suffer material and/or spiritual hardship. Noting that when Mary was about to give birth, there was no room in the inn, he said, “The Son of God knew what it was to start life without a roof over his head.”
Then the Holy Father asked, “Why are we homeless, without a place to live? And those of us who do have a home, a roof over our heads, would also do well to ask: Why do these, our brothers and sisters, have no place to live? Why are these brothers and sisters of ours homeless?”
We have been asked to reflect upon these and similar questions during this Jubilee Year of Mercy, and they remind us that as Christians, we have been specially charged with providing for those who lack, food, shelter, clothing, and housing (Matthew 25:35-40). These are questions for all of society as well. “I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope,” Pope Francis said to Congress. “The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts.”
Driving around our nation’s capital, you can get a sense of the scope of homelessness in our area. In fact, recent reports show that the District has the highest rate of homelessness in the country. There are tents perched underneath overpasses, alongside the highway and in parks around the District and adjacent counties. Growing numbers of people in Southern Maryland have also set up camps and try to stay there for as long as possible into the late fall and winter. Do we notice these struggling people in the busyness of our lives?
Meanwhile, many people who are not in poverty are nevertheless challenged by the high cost of living in this region, where it is becoming harder for them to find housing that is affordable on their paycheck. For some low- to middle-income workers, that means that they are at risk of homelessness themselves.
In his address at Saint Patrick’s, Pope Francis said, “There is no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing. There are many unjust situations, but we know that God is suffering with us, experiencing them at our side. He does not abandon us.”
The Lord is not indifferent to those in need; he hears the cries of the poor (Psalm 34). He comes to their aid and works his love through his disciples – through you and me and the whole body of Christ. Continuing a practice traced back as far as the first Christian community, as a local Church we are trying to address each piece of this problem through a number of programs.
For example, Catholic Charities staffs several shelters for men and women, together with health and employment services, and transitional housing for individuals and families able to move from homelessness toward independent living. Victory Housing is a non-profit agency of the archdiocese that focuses on building and managing affordable housing for seniors and families. In addition, organizations like Saint Ann Center for Children, Youth and Families allow us to both address immediate needs and to be part of a longer-term solution.
These programs offer invaluable relief and hope to those in need. This Year of Mercy, however, prompts us to ask, “Are we doing enough?” It is this kind of reflection that helps us assess the caliber of our practice of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
The charitable programs of Catholic Charities and other organizations can always use more support, including the protection of our religious liberties to provide such critical assistance without regulations that would require providers to violate their faith. There is also a need to make sure there is sufficient affordable housing available and if there are people living on the street, that they are helped to find their way to shelter. As Pope Francis reminds us, pointing to the words of Jesus himself, it is upon such service in love and mercy to others as this that we ourselves will be judged (Misericordiae Vultus, 15).