It has been extremely touching to watch Pope Francis’ repeated outreach to the homeless. Each one of his acts, including inviting homeless men and women to meals and concerts at the Vatican and installing shower stalls, a barbershop and a health clinic near St. Peter’s Square, demonstrate his special love for those living at the peripheries of life — those whom Jesus entrusted to our care. The Holy Father’s generosity is not necessarily intended to solve the complex problem of homelessness, but it goes a long way toward restoring the human dignity of our homeless brothers and sisters.
No one knows better the struggle to maintain dignity than someone experiencing homelessness. As the U.S. economy makes steady gains, understanding homelessness can be difficult.
A question I’m often asked is, “How do people become homeless?” There are frequently multiple factors that can lead to homelessness, but especially for mothers with children, who make up a large percentage of the homeless population, the primary cause is economic; they simply do not have enough money to pay rent and make ends meet.
There are two main economic issues working against poor families. The first is the high cost of housing in most metropolitan areas, which only increases as the economy improves. Although there are affordable housing programs, it is estimated that there are approximately four renters for each unit of affordable housing. Consequently, if families are able to find housing, they end up spending a very high percentage of their income on rent, leaving little left over for other expenses or emergencies.
The second economic issue is employment. Although unemployment is low, there are very few entry- or lower-level jobs that pay what is known as a “living wage” — a wage sizable enough to pay rent and meet other expenses. In Illinois, a full-time job paying approximately $18 an hour would be needed to make a two-bedroom apartment affordable. Since these wages are hard to find, poor families can work hard — 40 or more hours per week — and still not earn enough to cover rent, utilities, food, medical needs, transportation, child care and other daily living expenses.
Low wages and high rents leave poor families extremely vulnerable to homelessness. For those who can find housing, any unexpected expense — such as a car repair or medical bill — can start a spiral into homelessness because they have no savings. Other crises, such as being diagnosed with a serious health problem, caring for an elderly relative, fleeing domestic violence, overcoming substance abuse, or coping with a physical or mental disability, make the struggle even more challenging.
For decades, Catholic Charities has stood with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to advocate for more affordable housing, higher wages and improved education and job training that could begin to address the structural causes of homelessness. Catholic Charities also offers a wide range of programs that meet urgent needs including mobile street outreach, hot-meal services, homeless prevention services, transitional apartment and shelter programs, domestic-violence services, housing for homeless veterans, substance-abuse treatment, mental-health counseling, case management and education and job training.
The most important goal of all of Catholic Charities’ homeless programs is to restore an individual’s dignity. Through the collective efforts of our board members, donors, volunteers and staff, we help people carefully craft plans to improve their lives, connect them with resources to bring about positive change, and treat them with the genuine respect that reflects their God-given dignity. As Pope Francis reminds us with his thought-provoking charitable endeavors, our responses to the poor and vulnerable are not one-time acts of generosity, but are the defining witness of the Catholic Church.
Boland is president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago