You have certainly seen them on the street unless you purposely turn away and pretend they aren't there, or if you diligently avoid eye contact. You may or may not take notice of what they're wearing, like layers of clothing even in the heat.
You may not notice what they're carrying in their large trash bags, or pushing around in their shopping cart. You may have heard them called by a variety of names, such as hobos, bums, vagabonds, derelicts, transients or street people.
They are the homeless, some of whom are without a place to live temporarily, and some who are homeless for much longer periods of time. People react to them in many different ways, like disgust at their appearance or smell, fear of their possible mental instability, anger for their panhandling or pity for their plight.
Within Erie County alone, there were more than 5,500 people who experienced homelessness in the last year. Many of the homeless are families, especially single mothers with their children. Children under 18 are almost 30 percent of all people who are homeless in our community. On any given night in Erie County there are more than 1,000 people who have no secure place to sleep, eat or call home.
Those who regularly work with the homeless and provide what shelter they can for them say that the number one reason for homelessness is the loss of a job, and then lacking the skills, or the education, to find another one easily. Some have legal problems, or addiction problems, or have made some bad decisions along the way. All of them, however, are without that most basic of human needs - having a home.
This variety of persons and circumstances is the reason the Church teaches that our perspective on this situation has to be one of compassion for the individuals, as well as an insistence that we address homelessness as a community and as a society. Housing is not a commodity and is not a luxury - it is a basic human right. Having shelter and a place to call home is a fundamental aspect of protecting life and the dignity of each person.
There are many Church organizations and individuals that give of their time and their charity to help the homeless, including working in shelters and offering meals and clothing and services to them. But it is a mistake to think that such charitable efforts are the long-term solution to providing housing and support to the homeless. As long as we continue to view solutions to problems like homelessness as a "charitable" event, we risk never understanding that those we serve have a right to these basic human needs like food, clothing and shelter.
Our bishops have said it well: "We are very proud of our efforts to feed and shelter the poor. Yet, we cannot pretend that soup kitchens and shelters represent a truly humane and effective response to poverty and homelessness. Charitable efforts cannot substitute for public policies that offer real opportunities and dignity for the poor."
It will take more than compassion and charity, as important as these are, to address the issue of homelessness. It will take our advocacy with legislators to craft and implement public policies that preserve what affordable housing we already have, produce more, and partner with communities, governments, developers and the homeless themselves to provide enough decent housing for all who do not have it.
We need to create more room at the inn.
Deacon Don Weigel is the associate public policy coordinator at Catholic Charities of Western New York and an instructor at Christ the King Seminary. He may be reached via email.