Wend your way through the streets of any large city, teeming with Christmas shoppers, where store windows glisten with expensive watches and handbags, and it is all too easy to avert your eyes from those dehumanized shapes in doorways or sprawled on the steps or stretched out in the pews of open churches. Swathed in blankets, they peer out with blank eyes from between scarves and wool hats as they display their cardboard manifestos: House burned down. Wounded Vet. Hungry. Pregnant. Jobless. Help. The message is sobering: We are helpless, abandoned and dependent on your seasonal generosity.
In the Spiritual Exercises, the classic spiritual guidebook for retreat directors, St. Ignatius Loyola invites the retreatant to contemplate the great mysteries of the Incarnation and the Nativity. The starting point for these exercises, however, is not the grandeur of the Trinity, “seated, so to speak, on the royal canopied throne,” as Ignatius writes. Instead, he first invites the retreatant to see and consider the various persons on the earth, “so diverse in dress and behavior...some in peace and others at war, some weeping and others laughing, some healthy and others sick, some being born and others dying.”
St. Ignatius then describes God’s compassionate response to so much blindness, suffering and death in the world. He counsels us to hear what the Trinity says, “Let us work the redemption of the human race,” and to see what the Trinity does, “bringing about the most holy Incarnation.” Ignatius says the Lord was born “in the greatest poverty” and experienced “many hardships of hunger, thirst, heat, cold, injuries, and insults.” Though appropriately regarded as royalty by the angels in heaven and the visiting Magi, Jesus was born in a manger, and the family was displaced by the threat of violence.
Those living on the street and in shelters share in the Holy Family’s experience of transience and insecurity. But how often are they welcomed with reverence and joy? Years ago our culture referred to these persons as “down and out” or “Bowery bums,” distinguished from the “deserving poor” who had “pulled themselves together” and were thus worthy of concern. The Christmas message, however, reminds us that those who are without homes are human beings and deserve care. Do we see them that way?
According to a nationwide survey conducted in January 2013 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are approximately 610,000 homeless people in the United States on any given night, with two-thirds living in shelters and the rest on sidewalks, benches and in cars. The number has fallen 9 percent since 2007, and housing vouchers to veterans have helped lower the number of homeless veterans by 24 percent since 2009. This progress is significant, yet much work remains.
In some places the problem is escalating. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless reports the homeless rate in Chicago rose 10 percent to 116,042 in 2013. Chicago Public Schools reports 18,669 are students, 98.3 percent of whom are children of color and 2,512 are “unaccompanied,” living without a parent or guardian. Meanwhile, as new skyscrapers rise in America’s most expensive city, New York, the Coalition for the Homeless there reports that one child out of every 100 has no home, and the number of homeless families went up 73 percent during the Bloomberg administration. The causes of homelessness vary: domestic violence, untreated mental illness, joblessness, drug and alcohol addiction, H.I.V./AIDS, foreclosure and eviction.
Because of local, private, volunteer and public initiatives over the past 40 years, we now know what must be done to solve the problem of homelessness. In New York State alone, over 200 public, nonsectarian, not-for-profit and religious agencies have worked to develop policies that can effectively serve the weak and poor. Congress must maintain funding for initiatives like these. St. Francis Residence, directed by Franciscan friars in New York City, houses nearly 300 men and women in three locations. Its award-winning methods have been imitated throughout the country. They start by recognizing the worth of every human being and provide support services typical of a good family: a private room, staff doctors, including a psychiatrist, exhaustive records on every guest, a nurse who prepares medications, financial advice, an art workshop, cultural trips, breakfast and a hot lunch.
The main point, often overlooked, of the feast of the Incarnation, is that when God entered the world in the person of Jesus, the whole of humanity was transformed. Every person, including that huddled person in the gutter, is Jesus inviting—daring—us to love.