Think about Mary and Joseph as if they were living among us today. Homeless, they humbly accepted a stable as their temporary home, where the Savior of humankind would be born. God entered our broken world as a newborn lying in a feeding trough for animals, not a cradle. Pope Francis observed during a visit to Washington, D.C., in 2015: “The Son of God came into this world as a homeless person. The Son of God knew what it was to start life without a roof over his head.” Hope was born in homelessness.
This Christmas, we welcome Jesus into our broken world where homelessness and near homelessness remain a challenge. We could succumb to a “what’s the use” attitude that more than 550,000 people were experiencing homelessness on a given night in January 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). That’s a slight increase over last year, the first increase in seven years. Giving up is not an option for followers of Christ. He encountered people living on the margins and ministered to them by listening to their needs; he fed them body and soul; he advocated for justice. We can do no less.
Homelessness in Iowa this year was down 10.1 percent from 2016, HUD reports. Those numbers may not tell the whole story, though. Ehren Stover-Wright, research director for the Institute for Community Alliances in Des Moines, told The Catholic Messenger that just a third of Iowa’s counties reported homeless figures for the survey. The snapshot in time shows 2,652 homeless people in Iowa were sheltered; 104 people were unsheltered. That’s 2,756 people too many!
More alarming: “In every county, there is a shortage of units for rent at the affordable rate,” Stover-Wright notes in a September 2017 Analysis of Housing in Iowa. For example, in Des Moines County 2,330 households with income below 30 percent of the Average Median Income (AMI) are seeking affordable units, compared with 87 units available to them. In Lee County, 1,950 households compete for 159 units of affordable housing. These are counties in our diocese.
The Muscatine Center for Social Action (MCSA) cited a report by KWQC TV 6 News that rent in Muscatine was too high in comparison to other Iowa cities, according to 300 residents who responded to a survey. Not enough rental options are available to meet the needs of hourly wage earners, the residents said. However, 52 low-income apartments are being built in Muscatine. This is a glimmer of the hope of Christ, born homeless in a manger.
It’s heartbreaking to hear the distress in people’s voices over the phone as they ask for financial help for rent and utilities, says Kent Ferris, director of Social Action and of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Davenport. Because the small-staffed office doesn’t have the resources to respond to individual needs, callers are referred to agencies such as Churches United CareLINK, which the diocese supports.
“We will continue to field the very painful calls of people with great need,” Ferris said, because “we have a responsibility to appreciate the needs of our neighbors.” His message applies to all of us. If you are aware of people struggling to keep a roof over their head, help them to find the resources necessary to remain in their homes. Let your parish know of unmet housing needs in your community. Parishes, in turn, should inform the diocese. Your contributions to annual diocesan collections, such as Operation Rice Bowl (during Lent) and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (in November) help the diocese to respond to needs locally and nationally. Your willingness to reach out, to offer guidance and support, to work collaboratively with others to alleviate homelessness is the hope of Christ, born homeless in a manger.
Lack of affordable housing, particularly in larger metropolitan areas, is driving the increase in homelessness among the poorest of the poor, fueled by the growing gap between the haves and have-nots. Think of the people you know in Iowa, who are doubling up, living with family or friends, because they can’t afford a home or apartment of their own.
“Nationally, the economy is doing pretty well, but the impact of the overall health is not felt at the bottom,” Stover-Wright told The Catholic Messenger. “And the broadening gulf between rich and poor exerts downward pressure on the poorest Americans — the homeless being the poorest of the poor.”
Tell Senators Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst and your U.S. representative to preserve funding for programs and incentives that will increase the availability of affordable housing. Make your advocacy the hope of Christ, born homeless in a manger.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor