Religion / U.S. Bishops On Homelessness

U.S. Bishops On Homelessness

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Autor:  anton  30 October 2010
Tags:  Bishops,  Homelessness
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“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect

Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for

the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the

Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our Prosterity, do ordain and

establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

-Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America

The above preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America holds admirable ideals in setting forth principles for the founding of this newly formed government. In form and content, the Constitution presents itself as one of the most consequential documents ever created for the establishment of a nation. The progenitors of this document, while espousing broad principles in theory, propagated, managed and sustained a clearly separate and less inclusive reality. There existed, and still exists, several dichotomized layers within these “United” States - one Black, one White, one rich, one poor. Slavery, in all of its brutishness existed, while at the same time equality for “all citizens” was being proclaimed. Women, indeed, were treated as second-class citizens, but to a much lesser degree than were Blacks and Native Americans, who were considered lesser forms of life. While it is not my intention to recount the entire history of the United States, it is my intention, with brevity, to review some policies of this nation, since its inception and up to the present time. America has a well-documented history of injustices towards those who are less fortunate and in an effort maintain the status quo, there are continual efforts to erode the basic human rights of those who are deemed the “scourge” of society. Today, those most fitting this description, include the burgeoning homelessness population

throughout the cities of America. While the preamble states the establishment of justice as a standard for the formation of the Union, the question remains, and strong evidence exists, as to

whether or not justice has truly been achieved for all citizens. This paper will explore the issue of justice, in theory and in deed, as a founding principle of the United States, in its application of policies concerning homelessness as compared and contrasted with the theory of justice as conveyed in the book Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy (Economic Justice for All).


In the book, Economic Justice for All, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops attempts to offer a “personal invitation to Catholics to use the resources of our faith, the strength of our economy, and the opportunities of our democracy to shape a society that better protects the dignity and basic rights of our sisters and brothers.” According to its authors, this document was in no way intended to offer a resolution between the various economic schools of thought, nor was it to be used as an outlet for embracing a particular economic theory as might be suggestive by the title of the publication. The letter uses scriptural references as a guide to determine how economics should play a role in our lives. It is believed by the authors that there are six moral principles, which should provide a moral vision of economic life.

Those principles are as follows:

(1) Every economic decision and institution must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person.

(2) Human dignity can be realized and protected only in community.

(3) All people have a right to participate in the economic life of society.

(4) All members of society have a special obligation to the poor and vulnerable.

(5) Human rights are the minimum conditions for life in community.

(6) Society as a whole, acting through public and private institutions, has the moral responsibility to enhance human dignity and protect human rights.

By setting forth these principles, the Bishops had hoped to increase right action along with the application of Catholic moral principles in an effort to improve the economic status of the all people, but particularly the poorest among us. Throughout the book, the authors list specific ways that they believe that the United States and its citizens could address the needs of the poor in our country as well as to evaluate the impact that economic policies have on the life and stability of family. Although the publication seeks to address those who have embraced Catholicism, it also seeks the cooperation and support of those who support other faiths and traditions based on the “common bond of humanity.”

The Church believes that man, by nature, is a sacred being and should be “respected with a reverence that is religious.” Man was made in the image and likeness of God. Catholics embrace the belief that human life and human spirit is most fulfilled by having knowledge of,

and loving, the living God while in a spiritual union or communion with others. Using biblical quotes, the book addresses the central point of what justice truly means and arrived at the following definition: “Justice of a community is measured by its treatment of the powerless in society.” Throughout the writing scriptural references are made as to the fair treatment and dealing with orphans, widows, the stranger, etc., as these groups were used as litmus tests to determine the quality of justice. The poor are looked upon as being most able to receive God’s word with the purity of heart, mind and soul.

Justice has, in a biblical sense, many meanings and is more comprehensive than justice described philosophically. Justice, for the most part, “arises from loving gratitude for the saving acts of God and manifests itself in wholehearted love of God and neighbor.” Catholic social teaching describes three basic categories of justice and they are as follows:

(1) Commutative justice – calls for fundamental fairness in all agreements and exchanges between individuals or private social groups.

(2) Distributive justice – requires that the allocation of income, wealth, and power in society be evaluated in light of its effects on persons whose basic material needs are unmet.

(3) Social justice – implies that persons have an obligation to be active and productive participants in the life of society and that society has a duty to enable them to participate in this way.

Central to the existence of the human being is the existence of community. According to scriptures, each individual who makes up the community is expected to offer their lives for the common good of all. This act of “empyting self” allows Christians to participate in the shaping of history in God’s creative design. The community as a whole, “owes its existence to the gracious gift of God” and by following the life and teaching of Jesus, can manifest God’s will for a glorious kingdom based on freedom, justice and equality. Christian communities that dedicate themselves to unifying with those who are poor and suffering, will experience of the power of Christ. The community is striving to make a “new world” while still laboring under and through the “old world.” Being a Christian is not merely a label for vanity’s sake, but involves embracing principles that are incorporated into everyday living. Community nurtures and protects the dignity of the human spirit and is not considered complete and righteous unless it addresses the needs of the least of those among them.


History - Prior to the 1980’s, the problems of homelessness were primarily left up to the local and state governments to handle with meager resources at best. During the 1980’s, America experienced an alarming increase in the homeless population and thus in 1987, the United States Congress enacted the Stewart B. Minney Homeless Assistance Act (P.L. 100-77) in an effort the address the complex needs of the homeless population. There are two primary ways of measuring and defining homelessness. One definition and counting method includes all the people who are literally homeless (in a shelter or on a street) on a given day or during a given week (point-in-time counts). A second definition and counting method examines the number of people who are homeless over a given period of time (period prevalence counts). This may include a combination of those living with relatives, staying in transitional homes, etc., with no permanence. The McKinney Act was the first piece of comprehensive legislation that directly addressed the issue of homelessness on a national level and intended to provide primarily emergency assistance to the Nation's homeless population. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) bore the responsibility of distributing the funds under the McKinney Act and throughout a ten-year period, principally focusing on emergency services resulted in a shortfall for the millions of homeless people who were unable to access these

services. Therefore, Andrew Cuomo, Secretary of HUD, instituted a program of management reform in 1997 to help HUD effectively develop programs to provide greater assistance to local communities to combat homelessness. This action resulted in several housing programs under the McKinney Act being consolidated in 1998. This ushered in a new era for funding announcements, whereas other HUD housing programs, such as Section 8 voucher programs, were merged into three Super Notices of Funding Availability (SuperNOFAs) and in 1998, further changes resulted in one SuperNOFA. According to the National Council on Homeless, a SuperNOFA is a comprehensive funding announcement for programs to assist homeless and poor populations obtain safe, affordable housing. Programs available to assist the homeless under the HUD SuperNOFA include: 1) supportive housing programs which provide supportive services; transitional housing, permanent housing for persons with disabilities, and safe havens; 2) shelter plus care which is supportive housing with services for disabled persons and persons with drug and alcohol dependency, AIDS, and mental illnesses; and 3) single room occupancy (SRO) housing.


Despite the creation of a national system dedicated to addressing homelessness, many policy-making institutions and advocacy groups, agree that although drastic improvements have occurred in combating homelessness, that these federal efforts are largely ineffective in promoting long-term change due to insufficient funding for these programs. The statistics are

daunting. According to the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients, conducted in 1996 under the auspices of the Interagency Council on Homelessness, the following data represents the most recent compiled on a national scale:

§ 34 percent of homeless service users are members of homeless families.

§ 23 percent are minor children and 11 percent are their parents.

§ 84 percent are female and 16 percent are male.

§ 38 percent are white non-Hispanic, 43 percent are black non-Hispanic, 15 percent are Hispanic, 3 percent are Native American, and 1 percent are other races.

§ 26 percent are ages 17 to 24, 74 percent are ages 25 to 54, and less than 0.5 percent are ages 55 and older.

§ 41 percent have never married, 23 percent are married, 23 percent are separated, 13 percent are divorced, and none are widowed.

§ 53 percent have less than a high school education, 21 percent have completed high school, and 27 percent have some education beyond high school.

§ 28 percent say they sometimes or often do not get enough to eat, compared with 12 percent of poor American adults.

§ 20 percent eat one meal a day or less.

§ 39 percent say that in the last 30 days they were hungry but could not afford food to eat, compared with 5 percent of poor Americans.

§ 40 percent went one or more days in the last 30 days without anything to eat because they could not afford food, compared with 3 percent of poor Americans.

Within the past month (October – November, 1996):

§ 38 percent report indicators of alcohol use problems.

§ 26 percent report indicators of drug use problems.

§ 39 percent report indicators of mental health problems.

§ 66 percent report indicators of one or more of these problems.

The above data included information and assistance from the Bureau of the Census and signified a sampling of 76 geographical areas to represent the United States broken down as follows:

Ё 28 of the largest metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs)

Ё 24 small and medium-sized MSAs randomly selected

Ё 24 groups of rural counties randomly selected from all rural counties.

The report gathered and identified over 16 types of services available from emergency shelters and mobile food programs and alcohol/drug programs to transitional housing programs.


The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty suggests that there are several factors that play a crucial role in the increasing levels of homelessness, the first of them being housing. With increasing rents, cuts in federal housing programs and destruction of traditional low-income housing, families are finding it extremely difficult to find affordable housing.

The second factor, income, plays a great role in this technologically-advanced society that in effect, pushes lower-skilled individuals out of the competitive job market. More than 36.4 million people live at or below the poverty level. A large percentage of this number is what is now deemed the “working poor.” Cuts in public assistance programs, also known as “Welfare Reform” has resulted in reduced caseloads for the government, but increased levels of poverty for families with children as well as an increased possibility of homelessness. The current recession, whether or not acknowledged by the Bush Administration, coupled with the massive layoffs as a result of the tragic circumstances that occurred on September 11, 2001, has result in thousands of Americans on the threshold of poverty. The vicious cycle of homelessness is fed by the lack of effective federal, state and local programs that deal with issues such as general and mental health care, childcare, education and alcohol/substance abuse. These services, the third factor, must be addressed if long-term change is desired. The socioeconomic policies of the government must be reviewed to determine its effect on creating or adding to the plight of homelessness.

The National Council on Homelessness (NCH) estimated that in 1999 over 2 million people throughout the year experienced homelessness. Rather than seek to constructively deal with this issue head on, some cities have resorted to criminalizing homelessness by enacting laws that punish those engaging in loitering, panhandling, etc., or just being in plain view. This last

factor, a violation of civil rights, punishes those who are less fortunate for the homeless circumstances that they find themselves in, which in large part, may be due to the very system that is seeking to scapegoat them. For example, in cities with very few day shelters available and few jobs that pay a living wage, people who are homeless oft-times may find rest at bus stops or on sidewalks. The city of Tucson, Arizona, has made it unlawful to be at a bus stop for more the 30 minutes. Police in Seattle, Washington, have been instructed to fine or arrest people who are homeless for sitting on the sidewalk. In cities with an admitted lack of affordable housing, people who are homeless are forced to carry their worldly goods with them wherever they go. In Beverly Hills, California, it is crime punishable by a fine or jail time to set baggage down on the sidewalks. These are just a few examples of the acts that demean and criminalize the homeless.



The concept of justice in the American tradition is represented by the Lady of Justice. She wears a blindfold, usually carries a sword and scales and symbolizes the fair and equal administration of the law, without corruption, avarice, prejudice, or favor. In commenting about the lady justice, Dennis Curtis and Judith Resnick (1997), published in the Yale Law Journal stated the following:

“Images of justice may “teach, inspire, pacify, or otherwise influence viewers” (p. 1743). In America, Justitia suggests to young people that America is a fair country. It inspires us as a symbol of dedication against vices and injustices. It can pacify us, as well, for in the presence of Justitia, we may assume that our government is just even in the face of conflicting evidence, which suggests that it is not. We may tend to ignore very conspicuous injustices, perhaps because we are forced to accept the judgments of powerful people in the name of justice (p. 1767).”

It is again reiterated that America has, in theory, the foundation to create a system of justice for all of her citizens, yet just as her forefathers, she has failed to live up to her own high standards of conduct. In considering specifically the homeless issue, America has been found derelict in her duty towards the less fortunate and tends to favor the whims of those who are in least need of assistance. In 1993, President Clinton supported efforts for “breaking the cycle of homelessness and preventing future homelessness.” Yet his FY96, FY97 and FY98 budgets consisted of drastic funding cuts. In 1994, Clinton’s administrative federal plan acknowledged the integral role poverty played in homelessness. It was also recognized that the erosion of welfare benefits in throughout the 70’s and 80’s was also a key factor. Yet in 1996, Clinton chose to ignore these findings, and signed the Welfare Reform law into effect, despite the knowledge that this would push over one million children into poverty. The NCH’s Report (1997) Homelessness in America: Unabated and Increasing (A Ten Year Perspective), concludes the following:

“The shift away from addressing the systemic causes of homelessness to focusing on individual “responsibility” for homelessness and poverty only serves to legitimize and perpetuate homelessness and the industry it has created. This shift as well as the abdication of responsibility for social welfare programs to state and local government, ignores the ample research and data collection on homelessness over the past decade, and bodes poorly for current efforts to address homelessness.”

It is ironic that a Nation founded on Judeo-Christian ethics, is operating outside of those very values. According to the U.S. Bishops, “No one may claim the name Christian and be comfortable in the face of hunger, homelessness, insecurity and injustice found in this country and the world.” While the U.S. Bishops acknowledge some promise in U.S. economic life, it also warns against the consequences of her failure to act in accordance to the laws of justice for all. When considering the pastoral letter, although there is a requirement for the government to take part in combating poverty and homelessness, the responsibility of dealing with this problem also rests on the shoulders of those whose make up the community in which the poor reside.

Justice cannot exist in a society where the poor are treated with such indifference. Working with and for the poor is not seen merely has a matter of convenience of time, but it is one of moral necessity and consciousness. The Separation of Church and State has resulted in the removal of God and the examples as set by his prophets from the daily policy making that takes place in local, state and federal government agencies. This leads to actions that are taken without due moral consideration and results in lack of direction and focus, which then leads to despair and destruction of the human spirit. The separation also makes it easier to act outside of the behavior that is characterized as righteousness. There is no longer a constant reminder of, or guide against, the infringement upon the human rights of others. Sadly enough, this lack of moral fortitude is also reflected in the general society. One intention of the U.S. Bishops in writing the book Economic Justice For All, was to stimulate right action on many levels, ranging from individuals to a national arena. Based on the teachings of Christ, we would be able to forge

ahead and begin a new day by bringing the theory of justice for the few into a tangible reality for all.


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” - Declaration of Independence

If America could bridge the gap between what is written and what is practiced, she would be well on her way to becoming a beacon light of justice for the world. When billions of dollars are spent on wars and instruments of war, yet some people can’t even afford a cup of coffee, the respect and honor of human dignity is lost amid the greed and lust for greater power. America is considered to be one of the wealthiest nations in the world and is also admired as the only remaining superpower, yet she harbors a shameful secret – her homeless citizens. While sending aid to other countries, her own citizens, including millions of children, cry out for food and shelter. Does she hear them? It appears not and the voices that cry out continue to grow exponentially. Greater efforts must be taken by the government to ensure the general welfare of her citizens, but as individuals we should all supplement government efforts with our concern, compassion and resources in an effort to effect the concept of “love thy neighbor as thou love thyself.” In America, justice in terms of the treatment of the poor and homeless, appears to be illusive, but the principles and guidelines as offered by the U.S. Bishops, which represent

justice in its purity and true context, can provide assistance in stemming the tide of homelessness and developing effective tools to prevent future problems.

Let us remember and reflect upon the words spoken by Jesus, The Christ, at the Sermon on The Mount, that we may consider how are actions reflect on the principles we so wholly embrace in theory:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, fo rthey shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in h eart for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.”

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