“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 & 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.”