Those of us who work every day to protect the vulnerable know that certain segments of the population tend to be invisible and even expendable. The preborn, people with disabilities, those who are sick or nearing the end of their lives: All garner some kind of disdain from those who believe they are burdens on them or on society.
The homeless also fit into this category.
Homelessness has become a growing problem in America, especially since COVID and because of the abysmal economy and the rising cost of housing and food. A recent article in Fortune explains that “the United States experienced a dramatic 12% increase in homelessness to its highest reported level as soaring rents and a decline in coronavirus pandemic assistance combined to put housing out of reach for more Americans” and that as of December 2023, there were about 653,000 homeless people in the US—“the most since the country began using the yearly point-in-time survey in 2007.”
That number includes 111,620 children.
So when I heard that an Ohio pastor was charged after housing the homeless in his church facilities during below-freezing temperatures, I was saddened. The charges stem from the fact that he broke zoning and fire laws and may not have had adequate living space for people within his building. There were also allegations that some inappropriate activity had occurred in the past. While I can’t and won’t speak to these claims, I do know one thing. He was performing one of the Corporal Works of Mercy by housing the homeless.
The local shelter was full, and it was this place or the street. On a freezing night. What would you do?
Would you open your building to people who had nowhere to go? Or would you turn them away and tell them to sleep on the street?
Remember that John the Baptist taught, “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” The same goes for whoever has a home or a building they are willing to open.
This leads us to a bigger question: What can each one of us do to help the homeless?
We are responsible for the needy in our community. Many people think homelessness is too big of a problem for individual people to solve. And while you may be right, that doesn’t mean that you cannot help. Further, many people think that those who are homeless want to remain homeless—that they just want handouts and want to “live off the government.”
I know firsthand that in the majority of cases, this is not true—especially with people who have children. Many years ago, not too long after I graduated from college, I was the assistant director of a homeless shelter. We were a small, 30-bed family shelter that also had one room for four single men and one room for four single women. We encountered people with a wide range of problems—from families who lost jobs and had staggering medical bills, to single moms who had nowhere to go, to drug addicts who didn’t care where they lived and were happy living in the woods nearby.
But very few wanted to be and stay homeless. They simply needed some help. And once they got on their feet, they were proud to no longer need help. They just needed that initial boost.
For the majority of us, when we encounter financial troubles, we have family to rescue us. But what if we didn’t? Who would be our family to help?
As pro-life people, we have to be that family to those who have none. Just as we pray in front of abortion facilities for mothers to see the humanity of their babies and just as we sit with the elderly or sick and comfort them, we must reach out to those who have no one to help during this dark time in their lives.
There are many things that we can do that will make a difference in the lives of people facing homelessness.
For example, when my children were small, we frequently drove by an overpass where a homeless man would stand asking for food. My daughter, who was about seven at the time, put together brown lunch bags filled with granola bars and other nonperishable foods. We would leave them in the car in case we saw people who needed them and then hand them out the window as we drove by.
Similarly, you could buy a hot meal for someone who is homeless. Or you could buy gift cards to a hotel and hand them out on particularly cold or hot days.
You can donate necessities (food, clothing, toothbrushes, soap, etc.) to shelters. Or you could volunteer to serve meals.
You can involve your children by making and donating blankets to those who need them. Several years ago, I taught CCE, and during one class we talked about the fact that we have a responsibility to help the homeless. I brought in materials to make fleece blankets, and the entire class worked together to make them. It was a good lesson that helped the children develop empathy and that taught them that they can make a difference.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “God blesses those who come to the aid of the poor and rebukes those who turn away from them: ‘Give to him who begs from you, do not refuse him who would borrow from you’; ‘you received without pay, give without pay.’”
God has given us so much; we must give and help when we see a need. Love and building a culture of life take action. That pastor took action to help. What actions will you take?
This article first appeared in the Catholic World Report at catholicworldreport.com/2024/01/26/caring-for-the-homeless-builds-a-culture-of-life.