Wouldn’t it be grand if Pope Francis could be a recurring visitor to the U.S. Congress, a sort of spiritual superintendent who occasionally drops in to chide, cajole and mostly just remind our legislators when their actions don’t promote the common good? What kind of country would we become?
Watching as the pontiff stepped away from the podium after his electrifying speech to Congress, many wish the effect to stick. We’d like to see Democrats and Republicans to get off their high horses and cooperate on restoring the health and prosperity of the nation. And for our elected officials to stop acting merely as the "political class" and instead legislate as men and women of conscience.
A lot of reasonable people in this country wish the pope’s short visit would usher in such an era.
But with his visit to Capitol Hill complete, the pope drove off in his little Fiat, en route to greet the people nearest his heart: the poor and homeless. At St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Washington, he spoke to and looked in the faces of the least among us at a Catholic Charities free lunch for more than 200. It was a sharp contrast to his prior errand. And yet there is a role for government at this table, too.
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"Why are we homeless?" Francis asked. "Why don’t we have housing? These are questions which many of you may ask daily."
Then, he added, "We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing."
Is that clear enough for you? There is no justification whatsoever, and yet homelessness persists — thrives, actually — in this rich and powerful nation. Why?
Unwind the life of virtually any homeless man, woman or child and you may see personal failure or family failure. More likely you will see challenges that people can’t handle by themselves: mental illness, domestic violence, catastrophic job loss, poverty. No one sets out in life wanting to be homeless. No one should be trapped in homelessness, even as a consequence of poor choices.
That they continue to be is an indictment of a society that sanctions discarding — a word Francis often uses — those it finds inconvenient.
It’s also a failure of government. Just as you can track the problems along a person’s road to homelessness, you can track policy maker’s failure — or is it refusal? — to respond. The story of homelessness is a story of policy failure: shortfalls in vision and funding of public education, investment in neighborhoods, job training, access to healthcare (especially mental), affordable treatment for addictions of alcohol and drugs, and treatment for PTSD-afflicted veterans after they fight our wars.
Those are all issues that Congress has an impact on, for better or worse.
The pope’s arrival in the U.S. overshadowed a national headline on homelessness out of Los Angeles. City leaders declared a "state of emergency" because the number of homeless people setting up encampments has grown to an estimated 26,000.
In other words, the homeless have become too numerous to ignore.
So an announcement was made that $100 million would be shoveled at programs, which not surprisingly have yet to be fully outlined. That’s because there are no easy answers.
The skyrocketing costs of housing, and the lack of affordable options, are significant factors in why homelessness has grown by 12 percent in Los Angeles in the past two years. But affordable housing is an issue in virtually every American city.
The uneven way the economy is recovering from the recession is another complicating factor. Congress and the president approved bailouts and other deals for some, but that didn’t benefit everyone in the long run. How the U.S. rebuilds its economy will determine who and how many land on our streets in the future.
A central moral teaching of virtually every faith is the responsibility to feed the poor. Yet charity alone is not a solution. We have an obligation as a society, through the policies of our governments, to create the conditions and opportunities for all to house, feed and clothe themselves and their families.
Any honest assessment of homelessness apportions blame and responsibility in many directions. Like the stalemates of Congress, homelessness didn’t begin recently, and it continues through inaction or misdirected action from many, many quarters.
Day by day, struggle by struggle, people fall into being homeless through their own faults and from circumstances they did not create.
There but for the grace of God goes each of us.