Simple Catholic Snapshots
- 2000 years ago a couple needing shelter was turned away.
- A baby boy was born, homeless, forced to sleep with the animals.
- This man lived and loved and died to change the world.
- He’s still here…on the street, calling us, calling us to change.
Who is He? What gift does he really want or need? Where do I find him?
Simple Catholic Truth
Living in Southern California affords me near year-round opportunity to get out and ride my bicycle. Some have called it obsessive, I prefer to call it healthy or therapeutic, but in any case the pedals have been turning now for many years. We are blessed with a dedicated bike trail that passes near my house and goes all the way down to the ocean. Aside from a few parks along the way, a golf course, the Honda Center where the Mighty Ducks play hockey and Angel Stadium, the scenery is actually kind of boring. Not much really changes as the clock ticks and the miles roll on.
But something has changed over the years. As with many parts of society, there have always been that lone and lonely white-bearded guy. You might see him pushing a grocery cart filled with aluminum cans and plastic bottles, perhaps a blanket or some sheets of cardboard. On early morning rides, I sometimes would see him sleeping along the trail or tucked under the protection of a freeway underpass. By and large, those sightings were the exceptions.
However, in the past 5 years or so things have changed. Now, instead of the occasional homeless person we now find extended establishments of makeshift dwellings. especially near the Honda Center and Angel Stadium.
That quintessential old guy ‘bum’ is now replace with continuous communities of people living on the streets. This area is not the exception – the homeless population in our country has exploded in recent years. Something is terribly wrong and we need to pay attention.
Now, the purpose of this blog is not to criticize or condemn or judge, rather I wish to simply share some observations on the homeless situation as I see it personally and end the blog with a spiritual perspective that is Simple Catholic Truth. The latter is particularly relevant given our place in the Advent season and with Christmas day so very close.
What are ‘The Homeless’
In the countless hours up and back the bike trail over the years, I have noticed a significant shift in the demographic of the homeless population. Of course the raw numbers have increased, but the demographic has shifted as well. Once the homeless was the occasional older grey bearded guy that I mentioned before. In the last 5-10 years there has been a significant increase in the number of younger men. Obviously more and more men are not holding steady employment or if employed are choosing to live outside of an apartment or house.
In addition, especially in the last year, I have seen an astonishing number of women (even young women) now living in these tents and lean-to’s. As a guy, I can see myself living in the dirt and grime if necessary. But, for a woman, well, I just don’t understand. I can’t image how vulnerable they might be out in these environments.
Demographics aside, I have concluded that there are basically 4 groups of ‘homeless’ people out here living in these tents and tarps. I will offer my humble thoughts as to how they ended up in these groups and comment as to the proper response by society to their condition. I know it is dangerous, perhaps unfair and even morally wrong, to force people into defined groups. This ‘group-think’ mentality is the foundation of racism and other forms of abhorrent attitudes. That said, I think it is important to see the distinctions between groups because it leads us to the realization that the best way to help each group may be different.
- I think there is a subset of these people that I will, for the sake of convenience and clarity, call mentally ill. I mean no disrespect with this label, I only use it for convenience. In any event, I think people in this group have some mental condition that makes them unable to take care of themselves. This mental state may be genetic in nature or may be the end result of drug abuse. For some people judging the homeless, this difference is important but for me what matters only is their current state. They can’t get out on their own; they need our help to survive. As a society, we need to reach out and get them into hospitals, shelters or rehab programs that can make a difference. To use a well worn cliche’, to this group we must give a fish.
- The second group of people are what I consider down on their luck. These people have had bad breaks that have kicked them in the teeth and pushed them to the curb. Of course, some have made bad choices and ended up losing their jobs, or place to live or maybe even being tagged with a criminal record. Rest assured, if you have a felony record you stand at the end of most employment lines. Bad choices or bad luck aside, these people genuinely want to recover and escape from the streets but they need a helping hand.
Sadly, I think many in this group, facing their dire circumstances, often self medicate the pain with alcohol or drugs which can push them dangerously towards becoming one of the mentally ill group.
For this group, our response should be two-fold. In the short term we must provide the food and shelter to keep them alive and provide hope. In the long term we must get these people into the programs that will make them employable again and help them find dignified work and a place to stay.
In other words, we must give them a fish as well as teach them to fish.
- It seems to me that there is another group that is particularly interesting. I think there are some people who are freedom seekers that just want to live off the grid, away from the stress and pace of modern living. These people are especially difficult because we have to remember that we live in a free country. In one sense, people are free to live in a manner that they choose. On the other hand, that liberty does not extend the right for them to live in my front yard or next to my kids school. Therefore, we have a dilemma. My gut tells me the number in this group is probably small but I’ve included it here as food for thought.
- Finally, I’m certain that there is a definite criminal element within the homeless. Along the bike trail, there are different sections of encampments that seem to have the personalities of the various groups. Some are very well kept (perhaps the down on the luck group?) that suggest a certain pride and hope. Other sections are more haphazard and seem to be dominated by some really scary looking guys. Are they actually scary or is it just me? Are they dangerous or is it just me? I really don’t know, but when passing through these sections I do feel uneazy and remain vigilant. If these people are truly a threat, then it seems they should not be on the street.
It’s important to restate that the construct of these groups is my notional tool intended simply to help understand the homeless situation. It’s clear that the lines between these groups is blurry at best. I can’t even begin to comment on how we might tell these groups apart or how to proceed once we do.
Who are ‘The Homeless’
And now to tie this back the title of this blog post. We’ve talked about what these homeless people are, their age and gender and circumstances. But what does our faith as Catholics tell us about who these people are? Scripture tells us clearly, no commands us, that we are to “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”(Mt 22:37). But immediately following is the second great commandment and that is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:38).
So how is it that we are to love God? How does loving our neighbor relate to loving God?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church answers this question with astonishing clarity:
“It is by what they have done for the poor that Jesus Christ will recognize his chosen people.” (CCC 2443)
and points us by footnote to the Judgment of the Nations in Matthew’s Gospel: [highlights mine]
31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Mt 25: 31-46)
Notice that in the final judgment, Christ separates the righteous and unrighteous based on their treatment to the poor, the naked and hungry and thirsty. What we do, empowered by grace and acting in love, really makes a difference, not only to the condition of those poor but to our eternal destiny as well.
But look a little deeper. Who were those poor? Verse 35,36 and 40 make it crystal clear that the homeless in our world today, the poor and hungry and thirsty and naked, are Christ himself!!
Two thousand years ago, the world turned away from the Christ child leaving Him homeless and sleeping in a barn. Two thousand years later the world is much the same. Our Lord is still on the streets homeless, sometimes hungry and cold. At times, even the righteous don’t recognize Him (Mt 25: 37) but that doesn’t change the fact that He is there. He is on the streets for us, teaching us to love as only He loves. Christ needs nothing but wants a simple gift for Christmas. He wants us and He’s hiding in plain sight, under those blue tarps and tents or cardboard lean-to’s. This Advent and Christmas season, lets go out there and welcome the Christ child into the world – face to face – with the hungry, the naked and the thirsty.
Do Something, but What?
Here is a most difficult part. I believe that ‘THE’ solution doesn’t exist. As mentioned previously, the homeless population is comprised of diverse peoples with different stories and backgrounds. As such, we can’t expect to find a one-size-fits-all remedy. That said, just because a perfect answer doesn’t exist, that doesn’t mean we can just sit on the side lines, concede defeat and say nothing and do nothing. Here are some general suggestions for lending a hand. I’d love to hear more…leave a comment.
- See the homeless as people. Fight the urge to stereotype all those homeless as lazy, drunken, druggies or criminals. Have some of them made bad choices? Are some abusing alcohol or other drugs? Do some have criminal records? Yes, yes and yes again. But all those yes’s don’t change the fact that these tattered, smelly, dirty men and woman are children of God, created in His image…just like you and me. By the grace of God they are, and by the grace of God we can make a difference.
- Make it personal. If you live in my local area, take a friend and go down and walk the bike trail between Taft and Angel Stadium. You might be uncomfortable but you will be safe. If the opportunity presents itself, stop and talk to some people. Listen to their story. Don’t preach. Don’t condescend. Just smile and say hi and listen.
If you don’t live around here, find your own bike trail or your own skid row. Believe me, it’s there, and they will be there.
- Get involved. Find a local church or secular outreach organization and volunteer. They have already started the ball rolling and have the programs and infrastructure in place to help those that need help. We all have a special talent and gift that can be brought to bear with great effect on this problem of the homeless. Find the place and manner in which you feel comfortable and brings your talents. Remember that you alone don’t have to move the world. Even something like helping once a month to make 100 sandwiches for the homeless is a great service to society and God.
- Influence two other people to also get involved. Learn about this homeless problem and talk it up to friends and family.
- Contact your local politicians. Ask about your local homeless situations and what your representatives are doing about it. They work for us, spending our tax dollars.
- Pray. No matter what the secular approach might be to alleviating some of these people’s pain, we must in the end place our trust in God. I’m not suggesting that we say a prayer and then sit back and expect God to fix things. I mean we should ask God and trust God for the proper guidance of our intentions and actions.
Okay people, those are my humble thoughts, intended to get the ball rolling. Use the comment box and let me know that you think. How best can we reach out? How can we make a difference?
If you are local and are interested, drop me an email at Tom@SimpleCatholicTruth.com. Either by bicycle or walking, I’ll personally take you down the river trail. I’ll introduce you to that homeless Christ child sleeping in the manger. When you meet Him, your life will change forever.