When Father Bob Cedolia learned that an occupied car had been parked in the parish lot for several days in the spring of 2013, he went to investigate. He found a woman and her two children in the vehicle.
“The mother said they had lost their home and felt safe parking on church property,” said the former pastor of St. Anne Parish in Castle Shannon, near Pittsburgh. “They were living in the car.”
“There are times in your life when you say to yourself, ‘Wow! I am at a loss to help.’ This was one of those times.” Father Cedolia, who is now pastor at Holy Sepulcher Parish in Butler, Pennsylvania, said that, although he felt helpless, he was determined to find a solution.
“I asked her about money and food, and told her, ‘Don’t worry, we are going to take care of you.’”
Those children could be counted among the nearly 2.5 million children in the United States who experienced homelessness in 2013, according to a report released last November by the Massachusetts-based National Center on Family Homelessness at American Institutes for Research.
Counting the homeless
The report, titled America’s Youngest Outcasts, notes that one in every 30 children in the United States experienced homelessness in 2013, an increase of 8 percent over the previous year.
|Ashley Nesmith walks out of the cafeteria of the Presbyterian Night Shelter in Fort Worth, Texas. Newscom photo
“Accurately counting homeless children in the United States must start with a comprehensive definition of child homelessness,” the report stated. The study uses the McKinney-Vento definition and the U.S. Department of Education’s school-based count of students who are homeless as the basis from which to make the estimate.
The definition includes “homeless children living in ‘doubled-up’ situations with relatives or friends” as well as “children living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, camping grounds or similar settings,” according to the study.
What would eventually become the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal legislative response to homelessness, was passed and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on July 22, 1987. The act has been reauthorized several times over the years.
According to the study, major causes of child homelessness include “the nation’s high poverty rate, the lack of affordable housing across the nation, the continuing impact of the Great Recession, racial disparities, the challenges of single parenting, and the ways in which traumatic experiences, especially domestic violence, precede and prolong homelessness for families.”
Catholics across the country are responding to the crisis in different ways.
One example is the reaction to Father Cedolia’s discovery in St. Anne’s parking lot. “I spoke at all the Masses one weekend about using our empty convent to provide shelter. Our parishioners embraced it. The response was overwhelming,” he said.
|A volunteer works with a young girl through
Family Promises in Washington, Pa. Courtesy photo
Parishioner Miriam Manion has been instrumental in organizing the effort to repurpose the convent. “We connected with an interfaith hospitality network known as Family Promise,” Manion said.
“Family Promise is a nationwide ecumenical ministry that partners with local congregations to provide shelter and support to homeless families while keeping them intact.”
Manion stresses the import of a shelter for intact families. “When a mother has a 15-year-old son, he may have to go to a men’s shelter while she goes to a women’s shelter. With our approach, we can keep families together as much as possible.”
Today, the suburban Pittsburgh parish can accommodate up to four families at the same time. More than 200 volunteers, including many Catholics from neighboring parishes, have agreed to share the work of preparing meals, providing family activities, transportation and overnight supervision.
Those volunteers include Carla Wilding and her three teenage daughters.
“Often, the families we meet don’t appear remarkably different from our own, but when they do, we still find common ground. They want the best for their children; their kids like video games and superheroes and ice cream cake; they root passionately for the Steelers,” Wilding shared.
“I’m so proud of my girls because they interact so effortlessly with people whose life circumstances are quite different from our own. They engage the children of Family Promise as if they were siblings or neighbors.
“Our parish mission statement calls us to be ‘a sign of Christ’s presence for the community,’ and this ministry blesses us with the opportunity to meet that mission,” she added. “We have learned so much about the causes of homelessness. The families are on the edge financially. Many have experienced events beyond their control, such as illness or injury, which leave them unable to pay their rent, while others have made poor decisions in finances, employment, relationships or otherwise. Each family has a unique story,” Wilding observed.
Wilding noted that many of the parents have grown up with enormous challenges themselves and are caught in a cycle of poverty. “Few are blessed with extended family support, educational advantages, or a caring faith community. These families lack the foundations in life that we often take for granted,” she said.
Annemarie Howse affirms the need for shelters for intact families. She has been the development and volunteer coordinator for Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women and Children, a program of Catholic Charities in Los Angeles, for 10 years. “Unlike Good Shepherd, many shelters will not accept children over age 12 because of the close quarters.”
At Good Shepherd, a mother and her children of any age are housed in an apartment. Howse said most of the homelessness she has encountered is a result of economic struggles. She added that “most of the moms are really trying, so it’s embarrassing the number of children who are experiencing homelessness.”
Howse also highlights the stress on teachers in inner-city Los Angeles schools. “Many teenagers find themselves in shelters in the Skid Row area where they have a cot for the night, are awakened at 5 in the morning and sent to school where teachers have the responsibility to not only teach but also to try to keep the children awake.”
A tale of homelessness
One person who experienced homelessness as a teen, alone and without shelter, is Wayne Richard of Chicago. The whereabouts of Richard’s father were unknown when his mother died before his first birthday. He was taken in and raised by his grandmother on Chicago’s South Side until she died when he was 13. His grandfather would not allow him to stay. So he took off on his own, he said, often sleeping in the open, and wondering “When is it safe to close my eyes? Where do I use a bathroom at night? Should I leave my shoes on so the rats don’t get in them? Where do I wash in the morning?”
|Wayne Richard, left, who was homeless as a teenager, is now a retreat leader with the Ignatian Spirituality Project. Courtesy photo
Richard told Our Sunday Visitor that as distressing as those questions may be, “real homelessness, the real loss, the real cost is that there will be no one to say ‘good morning’ to.”
“Ending the cycle of homelessness,” Richard said, “is not only about having a place to call home but also having a place in a circle of people, a place in other people’s hearts, a place in a community, a place in other people’s lives.”
While homeless, Richard began to use drugs. “I depended on the drugs more and more to relieve the pain of living and the lack of nurturing relationships in my life, Richard wrote in an account of his life on the ISP website.”
He was lost, high, homeless and desperate. “I was ready to end my life. I sat under a bridge with a gun in my mouth, tears in my eyes. Now my descent was complete. My final thought as I was about to squeeze the trigger was, ‘God, why wouldn’t you love me?’ And then it happened.
“In that instant, it was as if time stood still, and I heard a voice as clear as my own. ‘Get up, leave here; there is something else for you to do,’ he wrote. “I knew I had to find freedom from the bondage of addiction, anger, bitterness, pity and ignorance of self. I desperately needed to live without the fear and loneliness that had guided my actions. I knew that only God could restore me to wholeness.”
During his stay at a transitional center, Richard attended a retreat for the homeless sponsored by the Chicago-based Ignatian Spirituality Project (ISP). “On the retreat, I began to examine the continuous presence of God in my life,” Richard wrote.
That was in 1999. Since then, he has stayed sober, is employed as a senior community organizer with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, where he works with those experiencing homelessness, and he has helped lead more than 60 retreats for ISP.
“I see God move people on the retreats to faith and hope,” Richard said.
ISP is a retreat experience inspired by Ignatian spirituality focusing on recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, often a cause or result of homelessness for individuals and families.
According to Jordan Skarr, director of programs, ISP traces its founding to a 1998 meeting between Jesuit Father Bill Creed and Ed Shurna, director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
|Women paint pottery at the Ignatius Jesuit Retreat House in Atlanta, Ga., during a 2014 retreat. Courtesy photo
“Mr. Shurna was attempting to create an experience to help build community, hope and transformation among those experiencing homelessness while Father Bill, a well-known Jesuit spiritual director, was responding to an invitation from his Provincial to begin an apostolate to those living on the margins,” Skarr said.
By listening to people who were experiencing homelessness, the co-founders discovered that, in many cases, their spiritual life was a source of hope amid deep discouragement. Together they developed a retreat that draws on both the 500-year-old tradition of Ignatian spirituality and contemporary language of recovery, such as the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
“The retreat was designed for persons both homeless and in recovery to help them find meaning and purpose,” Skarr said. “By helping people tend to their spiritual life, the retreats help them claim who they want to be. In many cases, this means to be a parent, and in this sense, the retreat can have a real impact on ending child homelessness by bringing families back together.”
Retreat teams are formed of volunteers in various cities who complete a program of formation and also include formerly homeless and those currently experiencing homelessness who offer witness and provide spiritual companionship.
To supplement the overnight retreat experience, ISP developed follow-up days of reflection and one-on-one spiritual companionship to continue the spirit of transformation forged on retreats.
|A boy looks on as meals are served to residents of a Salvation Army shelter for homeless women and children in Detroit in this 2013 photo. CNS photo
“The retreat fosters a sense of peace and freedom,” Skarr said, “so ongoing formation helps each individual grow into the full person God intended through an ever deepening connection to one’s true self and a greater sense of communion with God and with the larger community.
“It takes a failure of many systems for someone to end up on the street. We hope our programs continue our mission of providing hope by nurturing the spiritual life to ultimately end the injustice of homelessness.”
Renate Reichs, a program officer with ISP, also shared how the retreats help end child homelessness.
“Some of the women living in shelters who attend retreats have young children and these children are in the care of relatives or the state welfare system. By helping parents with their recovery, we also help heal and reunite families,” she noted.
As an adjunct to the retreats, Reichs facilitates a weekly spirituality group at Chicago’s Sister House, a temporary home for women seeking recovery from substance abuse and sponsored by the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
She recalls a participant who shared that “having the ongoing spirituality group strengthened her in her desire to be a good parent and, even though she missed her child, she felt she was doing the best thing by completing the program at Sister House. In that way, we help children by helping parents in their recovery.”
Father John Rausch, a priest of the Glenmary Home Missioners who has served the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky for four decades, points out that the increase in children without homes is not limited to the city or suburbs. “Child homelessness knows no geographic boundaries,” he said.
“In Appalachia, we have a disproportionate and growing number of children in doubled-up situations or being raised by grandparents, most of which is caused by the drug culture. The drug use is a result of having few opportunities economically, predatory economics and a lack of diverse industries.
“When there is no opportunity and no hope, what can one depend on?” he said. “Many turn to drugs, alcohol and illicit use of prescriptions. Unfortunately, there they find something they can depend on, often resulting in the abandonment of their children or jail.
“Poverty is so spiritual, with no hope, no self-image, no belonging. Children can’t grow and develop without knowing that God loves them, and that’s the point of poverty in a little child.”
Father Rausch, who has a background in economics, noted the importance of charity while emphasizing the need to pursue justice in correcting structures causing child homelessness. The cycle of homelessness, he said, “is essentially a circle of lack of stability, lack of money, lack of home.”
“My ministry of social justice is to see that people get jobs, decent wages and work at structural changes. We need both works of charity and works of justice. If you see someone on the side of the road bleeding, you have to stop and help him, but at some point, we have to find out what causes the bleeding and put an end to it.
“The solutions to child homelessness and the cycle of homelessness are spelled out in the social doctrine of the Church,” Father Rausch said.
“The message is clear and clean and is found throughout the documentary heritage of the Church’s social teaching, from encyclicals including Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year” by Pope St. John Paul II) to pastoral letters such as Economic Justice for All (U.S. bishops, 1986). It is a message of justice, and one that calls all Catholics to be agents of change.
“What is needed,” Father Rausch added, “is a smaller universe, a community — neighbors coming together to work to eliminate the problem. Catholic social teaching gives us the themes of human dignity, solidarity and subsidiarity that should lead us not only to parish programs that reach out to people but also to the development of solutions such as buying cooperatives and worker-owned businesses.
“We need to mediate structures in ways by which people gain power and keep a voice in running their lives,” Father Rausch said. “We are called to interface with people as Christ would.”
Love with charity
Tom Mulloy, policy advisor in the Office of Domestic Social Development of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops echoed Father Rausch.
|Cindy Almendarez relaxes with her daughter, Zarah, 5, at Staben House in Waukegan, Ill., in this 2008 photo. Newscom photo
“Dignity of the human person and preferential option for the poor should be our guidance for policy-making, rooted in the knowledge that we are made in the image of God,” Mulloy said.
He suggested that “Catholics lift up the witness of both Benedict XVI and Pope Francis who have said that charity and justice are inseparable and work hand in hand. Pope Benedict has said in Caritas in Veritate, ‘If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just toward them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it.’”
Mulloy proposed two ways to lift up that witness regarding the cycle of homelessness and child homelessness.
“First, make sure their daily needs are met for food, housing and clothing. Second, I would encourage every Catholic to educate oneself on local and national needs, learn what the challenges are and then open a conversation with legislators and communicate concerns.”
“The Church has taught plainly and steadily that shelter and housing is a human right, and we as a society and a community have an obligation to make sure that happens, especially for those most vulnerable,” Mulloy said. “It’s a moral failing that here we are in 2015 and we’re talking about 2.5 million children experiencing homelessness. It’s not an intractable problem. We have the resources to solve the problem, but do we have the will?”
James K. Hanna holds a master’s degree in theology and is an online instructor for the University of Notre Dame’s STEP program.