Whatsoever you do for one of these least brothers of mine, you do for me.”
These familiar, yet powerful, words of Jesus from Matthew 25 were at the heart of our Gospel reading at the Columbus Day Mass last week at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. That Gospel brought to mind the plight of the homeless persons, especially here in the City, which has once again risen to the top of our news stories, highlighted by the recent brutal and senseless killings of four homeless men as they slept on the sidewalks in lower Manhattan.
If Robert F. Kennedy was correct—that the proof of a community’s values can be found in how we treat the least among us—then sensibly and compassionately helping the homeless is essential for the common good.
Once again, well-meaning people of all political and social backgrounds— politicians, business leaders, journalists, faith-based organizations, students, homeowners—are asking, “What can be done? How can we best respond to the needs of these persons who do not have a place to call home?” That we New Yorkers are worried about this challenge––and are weighing in with thoughts, ideas, and opinions—is good! This can only help us to come to a reasonable course of action and the willingness to carry it out.
One of the major obstacles to finding a solution, I fear, is the tendency to reduce the question to what should be done about “the homeless,” making it it easy to pretend we are dealing with a nameless, faceless, and monolithic group, and thus ignore that we are talking about individual persons, made in God’s image and likeness, each with a name, a soul, and a story. Each street person is first and foremost a person who is somebody’s daughter or son, often with brothers and sisters, spouses and kids, friends and former co-workers, who worry about them, want to help, but don’t know where they are or how to reach out to them.
Among these there are, of course, some profound differences. There are those who are temporarily “down-on-their-luck,” out of work, just arrived in the city, fleeing some misfortune, or eager for a new start. Others are suffering from severe mental and emotional illness, drug and alcohol addiction, and other chronic debilitating conditions, and can become violent.
Experience tells us that those in both groups can be good neighbors, with different types of help and support, responsible, and committed to making the most out of the opportunity presented to them. The individuals in the first group generally need an affordable apartment and a decent job to pay the rent.
Those in the second group, meanwhile, need treatment for their substance abuse, and emotional maladies, in safe and supportive residences. “Come and go” housing in a neighborhood for those in the second group would be highly inappropriate, both for those already living there as well as for those needing assistance. Only finding a place for them to lay their head at night without also dealing with the many underlying problems that have led to their homelessness would be ineffective.
I find myself in admiration of those reflective voices—certainly not the screamers yelling “I hope these shelters burn down”—now discussing our housing challenges. Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi, for instance, stopped by to let me know of his promising proposal to offer temporary rent subsidies to families already in housing, but at risk of losing their apartment due to back rent. To evict them adds to the street census, and ends up costing even more to shelter them, while to offer a bridge subsidy to pay rent keeps them safe at home and out of the doorways. Sounds like a good idea.
We in the Church are proud of our record in providing care through both temporary and permanent housing for the homeless, even as we recognize that more can and must be done. We take as our inspiration Saint Frances Cabrini, also much in the news lately, a proud immigrant from Italy who became the first citizen of the United States to be canonized a saint, whose entire life was spent caring for those less fortunate. She knew, as do we, that for believers, caring for others in need is not optional, not a hobby or nice idea, but a duty, as Jesus told us so clearly in the Gospel of Matthew. She’d welcome sane, safe, affordable housing and treatment for the homeless, as she set up in her day. In addition to a well- deserved statue, I’ll push for a housing complex in her honor.
Prayer is never a substitute for action, but a necessary complement to enable us to realize that seemingly intractable problems require God’s providential wisdom and mercy. I look forward to being with our interfaith leaders and communities to join together for a Thanksgiving week prayer service to commend to God the needs of our sisters and brothers who struggle with homelessness, and those who have died from violence and sickness on the streets.