Homelessness presents increasing challenge

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Point in Time Count released in December, the size of the homeless population in America increased by several thousand over the previous year to nearly 554,000 nationwide, with the biggest growth in West Coast cities. A strong economy in the West has led to increases in rents, leading to unaffordable cost of housing for some low-skilled workers. At least 10 West Coast city and county governments have declared states of emergency to seek solutions to the growing problem.

Two-thirds of the nation’s homeless are individuals and a third are families; nearly a quarter of the homeless are children, including some unaccompanied by an adult. Physical and mental illness and substance abuse plague the homeless population, which also has a far higher mortality rate than the general population. The homeless are also at higher risk of being victims of violence.

Regional response

While regions of major cities on the West Coast and Hawaii are popular tourist attractions drawing people from all over the world, wealthy communities often exist alongside the homeless and destitute. San Francisco, for example, is home to many wealthy people but also has a persistent homeless problem. The Archdiocese of San Francisco plays a prominent role in assisting the nearly 8,000 homeless in the city, working in cooperation with local government to offer relief.

Ellen Hammerle of Catholic Charities San Francisco has worked with the homeless for 19 years providing “a great continuum of care services” for those who are open to receiving help. Services include providing subsidies to those struggling to afford housing to finding housing for those out on the streets. They also help individuals find jobs, secure health care, provide services for children and assist with other basic needs. Hammerle explained, “We work with the City to move the homeless in and out of care as they need it, as well as to help them stay housed or find housing.”

The homeless or near-homeless may contact Catholic Charities for help, or connect with them when their staff ventures into the city to meet people in the streets. They see their role as helping the homeless problem-solve, and ultimately finding them housing. Priority is given to those in most acute need; a pregnant woman, for example, would be first on the list for available shelter beds. Hammerle says the homeless she meets come to the streets through a variety of routes. Divorce and family breakup is a significant factor, as well as generational poverty, lack of education, mental health issues and drug and alcohol abuse. A few refuse help, she said, but most are eager to be housed again.

‘Out in the open’

At 58,000, Los Angeles has the largest homeless population in the country, said Kathleen Domingo of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. While San Francisco’s homeless population has remained constant, Los Angeles’ has reached an all-time high. City ordinances have changed to allow the homeless to sleep in public places, she continued, so homeless encampments have popped up all over the area, making homelessness “an issue we now see out in the open.”

Winter's Wrath
The brutally cold weather covering the eastern two-thirds of the country at the start of 2018 kept Catholic agencies scurrying to find ways to make sure no one was left without warm shelter and hot meals. From Montana to Florida and Texas to Maine, homeless shelters opened additional hours and home checks were commonplace as gusty winds carried teeth-chattering Arctic air southward.

Two new and emerging groups of homeless, she continued, are the elderly and Latinos. The elderly find themselves without family support or access to public funds and, once on the street, “experience a lot of health issues, as living on the street is hard on your body.” The strong Latino family unit has weakened, she continued, causing at-risk individuals to lose an important safety net.

Half of the nearly 300 archdiocesan parishes have active St. Vincent de Paul Societies, which help the needy with a variety of services. She pointed to the example of five parishes in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley, which offer cold weather shelters for 200 homeless families. Services provided include temporary housing, food, rest rooms and shower facilities. It is a costly program requiring many volunteers, she said, “but it’s a wonderful witness to our faith.”

On a smaller scale, some individual parishes participate in a “Family Promise” program, which provides for the needs of three to five families. Others have “missionary volunteers,” who go into the community to befriend those on the streets. At Christmastime, the Adopt-a-Family program is also popular among parishes, with Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez himself delivering Christmas gifts through the program to the homeless families in the poorest parts of the city.

A worsening need

Portland, Oregon has an estimated 4,000 homeless, who, as in Los Angeles, are highly visible on its streets. Parishes that have taken the lead include St. Andre Bessette, which offers a hospitality breakfast, as well as a distribution of clothing and other essential items to the large number of homeless in the area. St. Francis of Assisi Parish in southeast Portland operates a soup kitchen, which feeds 300 daily, and also has a severe weather shelter. The daily Masses celebrated at both parishes often have a large number of homeless attendees.

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And while Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach has long been popular with visitors from throughout the world, the city itself has a large homeless population of about 7,000. Jillian Okamoto of Catholic Charities Hawaii works with existing state and private programs to alleviate the problem. One successful program it supports is the Family Assessment Center, where homeless families can go to transition into affordable housing. The diocese also operates a helpline, where the homeless or near-homeless “can be triaged into the programs we have.”

While in many cities the overall problem of homelessness is worsening, the efforts of the Catholic community have made a major impact in the lives of many. Hammerle, for example, observed, “I’ve seen much success with our programs to help San Francisco’s homeless. When our clients get the support they need, they can really thrive.”

And despite the large scale of the homeless problem in Los Angeles, Domingo believes ongoing relief efforts are a vital part of the Church’s mission. She said, “It’s our opportunity to be the face of Christ to the homeless. It’s a very powerful witness.”

Jim Graves writes from California.