The following is a paper by one of our January 2013 Street Retreat Participants, a Notre Dame student named Sam Baldazo:
“There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” Poverty, like any other social problem, cannot be defined with an individual, case-study definition, but must be explained as a dynamic problem with constantly evolving causes, circumstances, and solutions. For this reason, one cannot understand poverty simply by reading a story or a statistic, cold facts about a diverse community, but must learn from each example and experience their obstacles in life. Throughout my experience on the Mobile Loaves and Fishes Street Retreat, living among and as one of the homeless in downtown Austin, Texas, I met many of people who all told a different story of how they had ended up in their current state. Some had been average people, some from broken homes, but all had a life thrust upon them that was not entirely welcome. However, the insight these people gave me opened a clear certainty in my mind: The problem of poverty is too diverse and complex to be understood only through quick glimpses or reading articles. In order to truly know and understand urban poverty, one must experience it, either through extensive interaction with the poor and the homeless or through life experiences.
The basic problems of poverty, the lack of food, resources and shelter, form a lifestyle around the homeless that is much more demanding than one might expect. The hunt for these necessities becomes a full time job with traveling to find food, the degradation that comes from panhandling or begging, and the fear and uncertainty that comes with finding an open area to sleep in with little to no protection from the elements and from others. Similar to the early hunter and gatherer societies of mankind, when one’s thoughts are occupied with the search for resources, there is no time to think about the more important questions of life like the future.
My experience with finding these necessities was especially clear with the first night and morning of homelessness I experienced. Another Notre Dame student and I had become separated from the main group and, without phones or money, had to find food and shelter on 6th street, a street famous in Austin for its unconventionality and for its bars. After finding a bridge under which we could sleep, the long night began. I have never been so afraid as I was that night, in a city in which sleeping in public places is illegal surrounded by intoxicated young people, defenseless from the world. One of the major problems with the public’s perception of the homeless was made very clear to me that night and the next morning: Sleep is terrible while homeless. In an excerpt from my journal about the events of the weekend, I said,
“It is very hard to sleep. Cars drive over us, a bar nearby is blasting metal, and young, probably drunk adults walk over us, dangerously close to our temporary home. The fear is unlike anything I’ve ever felt. It is hard get warm and impossible to get comfortable… There is no way I’ll get much sleep tonight.”
I find it unimaginable to picture a world in which this is every night of sleep. Sleep deprivation becomes a major enemy the homeless must face in their day-to-day lives.
The most clear and important message that I took away from my experience among the homeless was that food and shelter are not the most important problems the homeless face. With time, they usually learn where they need to go to get both things. The two greatest problems that the homeless face are the lack of purpose and the loss of dignity. There is a great shame in becoming homeless in the eyes of society and the loss of dignity carves deep into the core of those who must experience it. In Pacem in Terris, John XXII says, “When, furthermore, we consider man’s personal dignity from the standpoint of divine revelation, inevitably our estimate of it is incomparably increased.” Human dignity is arguably one of the most important facets of human lives, defining us as the people who we are and connecting us to God. In the novel, Rethinking Poverty, James P. Bailey discusses the capabilities of a good human life, in which he says that to “[have] the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others.” Page 72 In this respect, maintaining dignity, even in the face of such hardship as extreme poverty, is one of the most important factors in returning those in the face of extreme poverty and homelessness to full functioning in society.
When that most crucial element of humanity is stripped, especially for long periods of time, then most tend to lose faith in themselves and in those around them. Therefore, it becomes the responsibility of the church and of all people to strive to recover that lost dignity of those in poverty and homelessness and restore it to them. In the article, “Fighting Poverty with Faith,” by Steenland and Nordengren, it says:
“To this day churches, synagogues, and mosques provide food, clothing, housing, health care, and job assistance to those in need. They send volunteers to disaster areas, such as New Orleans, to rebuild communities. And they resurrect impoverished communities in their own neighborhoods.”
Historically, it has been those who find spirituality through religion or otherwise that tend to be the most empathetic to the plight of poverty and homelessness. In the Catholic faith, we are taught that to help our fellow man in his time of need is a staple of the faith and a necessary party of our practice of Catholicism. During mass, we are reminded that God will feed the hungry and help the poor. In the book of Deuteronomy, the Bible states, “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs.” We as Christians have a moral obligation to help the poor, regardless of their background or their current status. In his reflection on his own experience with voluntary homelessness through the same Street Retreat I participated in, Jim DiSimoni recounted a story of being turned away at a church, where he was given a meal but told he could not enter the church. Even though he was not truly homeless, this interaction wreaked havoc on his emotions and was a defining moment for him on the trip. He spoke against that kind of treatment, saying, “As Christians we are called to love, not to judge.” The lack of human dignity granted to the poor, even through members of the church can be subtle and may not even be acknowledged as such by many, but it is a poison to the spirits and hopes of the poor and homeless. The charity through which the retreat was organized, Mobile Loaves and Fishes, has treated this problem through their treatment of the homeless. Instead of giving them food and aid in such a way as to make the homeless feel indebted or otherwise humiliated, they treat the homeless with respect and give them these things out of love, not out of a misplaced need to do community service or to impress peers. I’ve never seen the homeless treated with such respect as the treatment they received through the employees of Mobile Loaves and Fishes.
The other major problem, the misunderstood problem, is the lack of purpose. This loss is a problem I experienced very clearly during my experience. In an excerpt from my journal, I said:
“This lifestyle has no purpose, no goals to strive for, no hope, only the struggle to survive. The lack of purpose is the subtlest, yet the most dangerous fear that exists. We take it for granted in our lives; we find purpose in our friends, our jobs, our schooling, and our families. Purpose steers us away from sin and from law breaking because we have something to lose. When one has literally nothing to lose, it changes his or her perspective on societal rules.”
To lose purpose in life is as dangerous as to lose emotion or spirituality. As I said in my excerpt, the loss of companionship, interaction, and a reason to go on makes one’s perceptions of other people, rules, and of society change. As time goes on and those in deep ruts of poverty or homelessness lose the people or things that matter to them, their minds change for the worse. When the only person you can talk to, matter to, and even trust is yourself, it can distance you from others and make you even less appealing to society than being homeless tends towards. Purpose drives humanity, it builds empires and tears them down, it creates masterpieces and technology advances as well as armies. Purpose is what has made mankind of today and, to lose such an important facet of progress can make the homeless question their place in their community and with God.
The lack of purpose the homeless find in their lifestyle is a problem with various solutions for those with the resources necessary. Helping the homeless is not about giving them resources, which at its best helps them for a short amount of time and at its worst enables them to stop working for themselves, a further loss of purpose. For example, Mobile Loaves and Fishes has a saying: “We don’t house the homeless, we home the homeless.” The homeless aren’t only missing a house to shelter them and a job to provide for them, but a sense of belonging. Working with the homeless to find them a place to live and belong is one of the most important things we can do to reinstate the homeless into society and give a reason to a life previously devoid of greater meaning. It is similar to the saying, “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for life.” It is important to maintain a system that helps the homeless become productive, beneficial members of society once more, giving them back their purpose.
Talking to members of the homeless community, it is hard to create a substantial definition of how to become homeless. I began my reflection with the quote from the book of Deuteronomy, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” Therefore, it is not our duty as Christians to destroy all the causes of poverty, for as long as there is inequality, there will be poverty, but to seek out and nourish our fallen brothers and sisters, to grant them a second chance in life in whatever way we can. In this respect, I find the prompt of this paper to be somewhat misleading. There is neither answer nor solution to poverty, only that those blessed enough to have avoided the curse of poverty are charged by God to help in any way possible to assist those who have fallen. The average person does not have the political influence to enact policy in the government to change poverty and even for those that do, there are many sides to the issue to consider. In order to move forward with the issue of poverty, we must accept that it will always exist and work proactively with our own communities to limit its effects on those affected.