A Home for Christmas

Image of homeless girl in London part of exhibition by Lee Jeffries at Museum of Rome (CNS photo/courtesy of Lee Jeffries)

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.

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Mike Evans
5 years 1 month ago
Sadly, even though we know what works to materially assist the homeless get back on their feet and into safe and secure housing, our congress and state legislators refuse to provide the necessary funding. Every heart-breaking story is met with suspicion and then dismissed. The response seems to be that the homeless are suffering from only self-inflicted misery and so we have no responsibility to them. Shame on all of us.
Bruce Snowden
5 years ago
“A Home For Christmas” is very gripping and made me wonder if I have done all I could to help the homeless poor. At one point a few decades ago I did join a Parish outreach in service to the homeless poor by volunteering in a Homeless Shelter, where we served dinner to poor homeless men and shared overnight sleeping quarters with them. At daybreak we served them breakfast, then they were off for another day on the streets, some of them having family but no place to stay. Women had their Shelters too served by Parish ladies and others on separate nights. Over the years I’ve also given small amounts of money to street people, never satisfied that I was doing enough. The words of Mt. 26, vs, 34-46 where Matthew seems to say give and you’ll enter the kingdom, don’t give and you won’t, is a constant reminder to make the homeless poor constant recipients of the Corporal Works of Mercy as a beginner! In other words, the whole enchilada! But I must say it was paragraph two of the article in which St. Ignatius Loyola invited me to “contemplate the great mysteries of the Incarnation and the Nativity" that grabbed my full attention and on that I reflect as follows on the Nativity. Of course, St. Joseph was not a poor, homeless man, as I’m quite sure the heavenly Father would not have entrusted the care of his son and his mother to a person unable to properly look after them. I’m not even sure he subjected his young pregnant wife to the rigors of a donkey ride all the way to Bethlehem, but more likely joined a caravan with others on their way to register. So, I think Joseph took good care of Mary and their yet to be born son. But for them the shocker began when they arrived at Bethlehem! Joseph took out some money to pay the Inn keeper for space, but was told there was “no room in the Inn.” Was that the whole story, or was it because the Inn keeper saw a pregnant girl heavy with child and wasn’t about to let the birth happen there? The Inn already had lots of screaming kids and he wasn’t going to allow a newly born squawking baby to heighten the din! After all he had to make sure that customers would come back on a next trip, good business! So he told Joseph that down the road a bit was a cave used as an animal shelter, and there he might find temporary lodging. Joseph walked away dejected, for the first time in his life a homeless man unable to properly support his pregnant wife. Mary sensed right away his embarrassment and she placed her arms around her husband and said reassuringly, “It will be fine, dear!” Inside, the cave smelly with animal refuse and wet hay, dusky too and damp, there were several cows eating from a large animal feeder and smaller animals eating hay fallen to the ground. Immediately Joseph began clean-up and lit a fire from the lantern he was carrying. Now the cave also became smoky but at least it was warmer. Mary told Joseph she was tired and wanted to get some rest, but where? Mary pointed to the large animal feeder and said to her husband, “it’s just the right size for me, so let me rest there!” Joseph was, well let's say sad, but hurriedly cleaned out the feeder and placed fresh hay and a soft covering from his luggage. He lifted Mary into her make-shift bed and it was there, a few hours later that Jesus was born, with help from other folks who had also come to the Cave for shelter! Other children running noisily, some crying , and Baby Jesus lustily exercised his lungs screaming for Mama and maternal security. A “silent night, no!” a “holy night, yes!” Angels came, I mean people, bringing to the new Mother and Father some comfort, for which Joseph tried to pay. But the good people refused compensation as all the “angels” near the so-called “manger” sang happily, “Glory to God in the Highest and on earth peace to men of good will.” Shepherds spread the news. Now there is more to tell, more details with which I hope St. Ignatius would agree, but this post is already too long. So I stop here, having tried to tell a little what that first Christmas was probably like. Homeless and in effect poor, Joseph and Mary. And there was their newly born son wailing his head off for the nutrients and comfort of Mary’s breasts. I recall here what St. Augustine said, “Mary gave milk to our Bread” our Eucharistic Bread. The Holy Family had found a home for Christmas!
Paul Stolz
5 years ago
Do you know why skyscapers go up in NYC but 1 child out of every 100 has no home? Its not because people who build skyscrapers are evil and using up all the resources. In fact I would bet you anything that most of those people give generously to charity.Its because when people want to build a skyscraper, they have an organized efficient plan. They pool their resources, they take pride in the quality of work, they have a game plan and stick to it, they work together. You dont have 200 companies working to build 1 skyscraper you have 1 company that subcontracts out the work and when subcontractors dont measure up they get fired. Maybe you should do a more extensive article on how homeless services are administered in NY State....you might find that Christmas Shoppers and Skyscraper builders arent the problem. Yes, lets look at St Francis Residence, 3 men saw a problem, they had a vision, and they worked towards a goal. Maybe the total problem isnt funding, maybe, just maybe cross jurisdiction, various levels of government, scattered funding among dozens of non profits with very little to no accountability, mountains of regulations, policy and protocol and no real game plan is the problem. Maybe if people approached the problem of homeless (hunger, poverty etc) with the same zeal and efficiency as a company building a skyscraper we as a society would make real progress.
ed gleason
5 years ago
Here is what my parish does for the homeless in San Francisco. www.thegubbioproject.org/video
Bruce Snowden
5 years ago
Ed, great work, the Gubbio Project which unfortunately I never knew about and thanks for sharing. Walking in the footprints of Jesus and Francis always the right thing to do. No longer able to get physically involved but prayerfully ever involved.
zaki kareeem
2 years 10 months ago
such a wonderful post. thanks to you. http://www.clash-games.com


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