By Paul Starkey, Voice of the Poor Chair, Sacramento Diocesan Council
Rule 7.1 provides: "The Society is concerned not only with alleviating need but also with identifying the unjust structures that cause it. It is, therefore, committed to identifying the root causes of poverty and to contributing to their elimination. In all its charitable actions there should be a search for justice."
Two recent news stories tellingly reveal the extremes of attitudes toward the homeless. In one story, we hear of crackdowns across the country, including Honolulu, where the paradise city is dealing with the impact of homelessness on needed tourism. In another story, a federal appeals court in Los Angeles has recognized that homeless people have a right to live out of their cars.
The causes of homelessness are varied and complex. Yet one overriding reality cannot be emphasized enough. The homeless are our brother and sisters in Christ, and entitled to be recognized with the dignity and worth of every human person.
Yet individuals who are homeless, more often than not, are lumped together and categorized as the “problem” of homelessness, as I hear them called “those people,” and “your clients.” In our communities, we demonize the homeless as “druggies,” “addicts,” “lazy,” “freeloaders,” and “scammers“–and worse. And, as community, we deal with ”the problem” as “nuisance” or “crime” to thwart the conduct of those “vagrants,” “beggars,” “panhandlers,” “illegal campers,” “trespassers,” and “shopping cart thieves.” Our political “solution” for the homeless then is a systemic approach to ignore them, create barriers and structures that marginalize or ostracize them, and make them criminals for “camping,” “sleeping,” or “begging for help.”
The Society, through the Voice of the Poor, must seek every opportunity then to bring systemic change to this reality for those who are poor, and especially the homeless. What is needed in every approach to “solve” homelessness in our communities is the fundamental recognition that those persons who are poor and homeless deserve, like you and me, of having their individual dignity respected. This is not a novel concept but comes right out of our Catholic heritage and is recognized throughout our Vincentian Rule.
In West Sacramento, California, an approach to begin with the “dignity principle” has been put into real and practical effect. Last year, the city made addressing issues of homelessness part of its strategic planning. Through the efforts of a city-hired consultant, various interest groups--law enforcement, business owners, neighborhood groups, service providers, church and faith groups, including our local St. Vincent de Paul conferences, and even persons homeless or recently homeless—met over a period of months to discuss their different perspectives and interests in the issues around homeless. The final, adopted policy document, which not unexpectedly focuses on the city’s responsibilities for health and safety, contains one feature that is remarkable. As one of its “principles,” it recognizes “the dignity” of the homeless person.
More than lip service, this guiding principle creates a policy document that necessarily eliminates those systemic approaches that would “demonize,” then marginalize the homeless person. The dignity principle opens the door, and keeps it open, for ongoing dialogue and evaluation about whether and how city services are being used. For example, does law enforcement conduct its operations in ways that recognize the dignity of the poor and homeless person? Are the city parks fairly open to everyone in the community? Is city transportation a barrier or a help to the person that is homeless? Are ordinances and code enforcement applied with the dignity principle in mind? As tensions arise between various interest groups in the community—literally, disputes among neighbors—the dignity principle can be put at the center of those conflicts as the measure by which disputes will be worked out.
Time will tell. In the meantime, there is more work to be done. But having agreed to recognize the dignity of homeless persons, the community can move ahead together. And that is a good start.