By Ken F. Sawa
Executive Director, Catholic Charities
In the California Bishops’ recently released pastoral letter, “Hope and Healing,” on the care of those who struggle with mental illness, they state: “For them, our communities and parishes should be places of refuge and healing, not places of rejection or judgement.”
Sometimes the most meaningful engagement with the chronically homeless, especially those suffering from mental illness and addiction, is to just be present and hospitable. The Bishops affirm this in “Hope and Healing” by their words, “but simply because of these encounters—these small acts of love and compassion, understanding and friendship—are precisely what people need most.”
This truth was the inspiration for a homeless outreach ministry at Catholic Charities. On Easter Sunday in 2014, a small group of Catholic Charities’ volunteers began a journey with our local homeless by setting up a table in the Catholic Charities parking lot on D Street, in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the San Bernardino. The goal was simply to acknowledge the dignity of those who crossed our path early each Sunday morning. Volunteers offered “the best coffee on D Street,” orange juice, big, fat blueberry muffins, bananas, sometimes breakfast bars “to go,” and always bottles of water to stave off the Inland heat. This new homeless outreach became known as Neighbor to Neighbor. Though we offered some food and drink, Neighbor to Neighbor is fundamentally a “ministry of presence.”
This simple outreach has continued each week, without exception, from 6:45 a.m. – 8:00 a.m. to greet about 125 neighbors each Sunday. Joyfully, the homeless and a handful of poor local residents that visit our shabby parking lot are offered a good dose of dignity and kindness—and some breakfast goodies. One year ago, a second Neighbor to Neighbor was launched by another group of committed volunteers in Riverside to build community, offer kindness, and eat a scrumptious hot breakfast in a Casa Blanca neighborhood every Saturday morning.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) prescribes the Point-in-Time (PIT) count to determine an estimated number of people experiencing homelessness on a given night. In January 2017, there were an estimated 553,742 homeless people seen on a single night in the United States. The recently completed 2018 Point in Time Homeless Count in San Bernardino County is 2,118 and in Riverside County is 2,310.
But the Point-In-Time Count is seriously limited. The count fails to consider the transitory nature of homelessness, and it overlooks homeless people sleeping in a car, on someone’s couch, or in some other undetected place. The count also ignores the homeless in hospitals, jails, or other institutions. According to the National Law Center on Homeless & Poverty, if all the factors were taken into consideration that are ignored by PIT counts, homeless rates would skyrocket by a factor of 2.5 to 10.2.
HUD refers to the counts to inform Congress about the rates of homelessness in the U.S. and to measure the effectiveness of its programs and policies. Solutions begin with quality data. If the data is flawed, then possible solutions and subsequent evaluations of effectiveness will likely be flawed as well.
The real solution to homelessness is a national commitment to eradicate homelessness with housing policies that are centered around our most vulnerable citizens. For a myriad different reasons, our chronically homeless are very fragile people. They are simply not able to compete in a free market economy and become self-sufficient. These are indeed our neighbors and must rely on the goodness of others until this country’s housing policies catch up with the growing problem of homelessness.
Neighbor-to-Neighbor has provided many meaningful moments for the volunteers who give of their time and money to make it happen. One of the most poignant for me happened last year when a mentally ill homeless man approached me. He looked directly at me and said with great concern, “I don’t know why nobody sees me.” He hesitated, and then he asked, “Do you think I am invisible?” It was my turn to hesitate. Then I looked at him directly in his eyes and said, “I see you. I see you, brother.” He paused for a second, smiled kindly, and said, “I am really glad to know that. Thank you.” And he walked away with a freshly brewed, rich, hot cup of coffee.
In a single interaction that took seconds, his inherent dignity was powerfully affirmed and acknowledged. Individuals, groups, churches, and local municipalities cannot solve homelessness on their own, but showing our brothers and sisters the regard that is due them by performing acts of kindness is something we can do and do well. That’s the first step to hope and healing.
Catholic Charities is the Official Social Outreach Ministry of the Diocese of San Bernardino, rooted in the religious and historic traditions of service in the larger community. Visit us at www.ccsbriv.org.