With growing numbers of people suffering homelessness in the expensive megalopolis of Los Angeles, Catholics and people of other religions are working together to provide a serious response.
“The faith community is really a giant part of the services provided to the folks in need,” Kathleen Domingo, Director of the Los Angeles archdiocese’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace, told CNA.
There’s a reason Catholics help the homeless.
“We’ve been told that our salvation depends on how we treat those in need,” said Domingo. “Our faith isn’t just in praying and personal spirituality, it’s actually in what we put into action.”
She said the homeless are “the face of Christ, especially in Los Angeles.” Many residents live in such prosperity that “to turn our backs on the homeless is really to turn our backs on Christ.”
“We really need to ask ourselves: are we willing to sacrifice our salvation, literally, for our own convenience or our own comfort at not getting involved?” Domingo said.
Leaders of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities gathered at the University of Southern California campus Oct. 18 for a roundtable discussion that aimed to find new ideas and a united approach to responding to homelessness.
Among the scheduled speakers was Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles. He joined other religious leaders, homeless experts, and representatives from Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti’s office.
In a June 6 column, Gomez warned that an increase in homelessness shows a failure to foster a strong “human ecology.” It reflects a widening gap “between those who have what they need for a dignified life and those who do not.”
“I worry that we are getting accustomed to these sights in our city,” he said. “We cannot allow ourselves to accept a Los Angeles where sidewalks become permanent residences for our neighbors.”
A May 2017 report from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found a 23 percent increase in homelessness in Los Angeles County since the previous year. According to the Associated Press, about 7,700 volunteers counted about 58,800 homeless people, an increase of 11,000.
The number of homeless veterans had increased 57 percent. The number of homeless aged 18 to 24 increased 64 percent, while the number of those under 18 increased 41 percent.
The report did find improvements in the number of homeless families who have shelter. The number of families without shelter decreased 21 percent.
Officials said there is increasing financial stress on renters in the Los Angeles area. Over 2 million households spend half their income or more on housing costs.
The roundtable is sponsored by four USC organizations, including the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies. Father James L. Heft, founder and president of the institute, said there are many different religions in Los Angeles working to ameliorate the homelessness crisis.
“People in these different religions are doing good things to address this crisis. But they often work by themselves,” he said. “I thought it would be good for the leaders of the different religions to talk with each other, learn from each other, and through these conversations find even better ways to work at solving the crisis of homelessness.”
According to Heft, the roundtable aims to help advance understanding of the “complex issue of homelessness” and learn the most effective ways to address it.
“We want to promote greater cooperation among religions in addressing a serious challenge that our whole community faces,” the priest said.
For Domingo, Catholic action for the homeless in Los Angeles already has a record of success.
In 2016, Catholic Charities of Los Angeles and the St. Vincent de Paul Society worked together to place about 300 people in permanent housing. Though the numbers seem small compared to the problem, the beneficiaries are given a sustainable place to live and the means to stay there for the long-term. They also receive help with job placement and other support resources.
The work of individual parishes is significant, but sometimes difficult to report, Domingo said. “Much of it is done just in a manner of course as the parishes operate.”
Domingo noted a five-parish cluster in the archdiocese’s eastern San Gabriel region which collectively offers cold weather shelter to the homeless. The parishes also offer food, including some meals homemade by parishioners.
In addition, parish outreach seeks barbers, stylists and manicurists for these beneficiaries to “make them feel good and look good while they’re here,” she said.
The parishes involve homeless guests in Christmas activities, including Las Posadas, the traditional Mexican Advent season commemoration of the journey of the Holy Family, in which they found no room at the inn of Bethlehem.
Local schoolchildren make prayer cards, placemats, and table settings to help welcome the hosted families. A jazz band from the local Catholic high school also comes to play.
“You could just see this exhaustion melt away as people listen to music that maybe they haven’t been exposed to for years,” said Domingo, who added: “These are really amazing moments. It doesn’t get a lot of press, but it’s really the parish coming together to do something impactful.”
Some parishes collaborate with the nationwide Family Promise program to house families that have just become homeless. When they secure permanent housing quickly, they have a better chance of not becoming homeless again.
Domingo praised the “housing-first” approach to homelessness. This approach, developed in recent decades, aims to provide permanent housing immediately for those in need, rather than put them through transitional programs whose conditions are sometimes counterproductive and harder to fulfill for someone without permanent housing. She suggested the archdiocese would be happy to pursue such an approach.
“That’s also an approach that’s very much in keeping with Catholic social teaching, with the dignity of the person,” she said. Getting someone a house is something basic that does not need many restrictions.
“Just get people housed. That’s a very good step in the right direction,” said Domingo.
Many Catholic charities, St. Vincent de Paul organizations, and parishes in Los Angeles are taking part in a process called the Coordinated Entry System. It helps to ensure some knowledge about who is getting services and to ensure that some people are not “falling through the cracks.”
Domingo attributed the shortfall in housing for those at risk of homelessness to the “not in my backyard” mindset. Many projects have been halted due to local opposition.
“As Catholics we could help to shift the conversation on that,” she suggested. Catholics could help rally their neighbors to welcome homeless families to their neighborhood just as they’d welcome any family.
She also stressed the need for people to educate themselves about the options specifically available for homeless minors and the elderly so that they could help those the encounter find temporary assistance.
“It seems small in a sense, but they’re realistic steps, and I think that they can be incredibly effective,” she said.