Loving God’s Creations
In the face of rising homelessness in D.C., the faithful take action
Author’s note: This is a multimedia presentation created for Catholic News Agency. The video directly below is a 17-minute documentary that incorporates many of the smaller videos embedded in this piece. For the full story, read on. Enjoy!
Every homeless person has a story. For Cortez McDaniel, he was once a promising high school football player from Virginia, who started dealing drugs after a devastating hip injury ended his sports career. He was eventually imprisoned for his crimes and, upon his release, found himself alone and homeless on the street.
“I came to a place of humility,” he says. “That’s what it took for me; to be put in a cage like an animal, for me to ask God to help me, and then purpose myself to be the best man I could be.”
Two decades later, McDaniel, now the director of services for the Father McKenna Center in Washington D.C., has a very personal interest in helping men to change their ways and leave the homeless life behind.
The Father McKenna Center is a social service organization located just north of the United States Capitol. It’s a day center and hypothermia shelter for men experiencing homelessness, as well as a food pantry for local low-income families. McDaniel has dedicated his life to working with men at the Center and to helping young men and women avoid the mistakes that he made.
“I see myself as a servant, and so I get up every day and prepare myself to serve,” he says. “For God to see me capable of doing [this] job is an honor. It really is.”
McDaniel says he got involved with the Father McKenna Center in 2009 when he was asked to present his Recidivism Prevention Workshop, which he developed while incarcerated, to the men at the Center. Recidivism is a tendency to repeat the same behavior, and so McDaniel says his program is applicable to many different settings, not just among those who have been incarcerated. The then-director of the McKenna Center wanted to implement it in their organization, so McDaniel came to work at the Center in 2010 as an assistant with the program that the Center had in place at the time to help men transition off the streets.
He eventually developed what is now called the Hypothermia Transition Program, which lasts five months. The program evolved from a low-barrier shelter situation— providing merely a roof over a man’s head and a hot meal— to a program that allows the Center to be selective with who they bring in and monitor the men’s progress while they work to end their homelessness. As a case manager, McDaniel keeps files on around 70 men at a time.
“I interview each guy when he first comes to the center to kind of get an idea of what his challenges are, what he needs to overcome, to get his life back up and running,” McDaniel says. “We believe [the Hypothermia Transition Program] helps four or five times more people than it normally would, because it’s intense case management during that five month period.”
The ultimate goal, McDaniel says, is to connect the men with resources that can help them become stable, and eventually get them out living independently in stable housing, which can take 18 months to two years on average.
“A lot of it is getting the light bulb to pop on for some of these guys,” McDaniel says. “Some of these guys have forgotten what it’s like to live independently— some of them have never lived independently before. And so in many ways we are introducing these guys to a world that they’ve never been a part of before.”
Father McKenna’s Vision
Born in 1899 as one of twelve children, Horace McKenna, the Center’s namesake, grew up in New York City and joined the Society of Jesus in 1917. During Jesuit formation, novices engage in what are known as experiments— working with various ministries around the world, usually with the poor and the sick. McKenna’s so-called “long experiment” brought him to a Jesuit school in Manila, Philippines from 1921 to 1923. It was there, says McKenna Center President Kim Cox, that McKenna was deeply moved by the poverty that he saw.
McKenna was a brilliant man, Cox says, whose provincial expected him to go on to university to get a doctorate in Latin and Greek and become a university professor. McKenna instead asked to be placed in southern Maryland— in some of the most segregated parishes in the country— in his words, to “be with God’s people.” In 1934, he began to integrate his parish.
“I have to admit, I thought integration and civil rights started in the ‘60s,” Cox says. “But Father McKenna, with true vision, truly understood the Gospel, truly was called to make the world a better place...he started that stuff back in 1934.”
Ned Hogan, the Center’s director of development, was a Jesuit novice when Father McKenna was associate pastor at St. Aloysius, the former Catholic church that now houses the McKenna Center.
“The man exuded energy at 76 or 77 years old,” Hogan says. “His love for the poor was palpable. He had a penchant for knowing their needs because he was there with them. He walked their path every day.”
Though McKenna’s energy and drive for helping the poor was clearly evident, living this lifestyle of constant service took a toll on the septuagenarian. Apart from being a “notoriously bad driver,” Hogan says McKenna would often fall asleep— even to the point of snoring— during the homily at evening daily Mass, but would always somehow be wide awake and ready to offer an insightful comment on the readings when the presider would ask if the congregation had any thoughts to add.
“We do God’s work because we do Horace’s work,” Hogan says. “We companion those in need, be they homeless or poor families from the neighborhood. Our support is vital to many of them, just as Horace’s support was vital to the families that counted on him in the 50s, 60s, and 70s right here in this neighborhood.”
Father McKenna co-founded an initiative called SOME (So Others Might Eat); a community initiative called Martha’s Table; and was the inspiration behind the Sursum Corda Cooperative, a low-income housing project located one block north of the Center, which is in the process of being redeveloped. As the residents move out of the buildings, the units are boarded up to avoid squatters taking up residence. Hogan says those housing units, which were bare minimum standard in the late 1960s, are in even greater need of replacement today.
“I wouldn’t wish my worst enemy to live in them,” he says. “How people survive, I don’t know.”
The Center that bears Father McKenna’s name, in the basement of the church he served for nearly 25 years, opened the year after he died, in 1983.
A Better Life
The “Better Life Pyramid,” a discipline McDaniel created to help men end their homelessness, begins with a few simple decisions: Honesty, Humility, Self-Awareness, and the decision to ask for help. Once a man accomplishes this, he can move on to becoming legitimate— getting I.D. and health insurance— and later undergo a physical and mental health assessment, which often leads to a relationship with a therapist.
Kim Cox says mental health is a huge factor for their guests, and that about two-thirds of the men that walk in the building have mental health problems.
“We don’t do counseling ourselves. We are not a drug or rehab center,” she says. “We have lots of partners and collaborating organizations in the city.”
Cox says what the McKenna Center does well is helping a man get stable, legitimate, and convicted in the heart that they want to change their life. She says their approach is grounded in a Catholic understanding of human dignity and the belief that people can change their behavior if they really want to.
This generous approach involves expectations from the men, however. Men who walk in compromised— drunk or high— are asked to leave. The men are also not allowed to sleep during the day, because, as Cox says with a wry smile, they “can’t learn anything while they’re asleep.”
“Very often I think men who are chronically homeless have lost those kind of expectations for themselves,” Cox says. “So we spend a lot of time building these men back up to believe that they deserve something better in life, and believing that they are capable of moving to that.”
Apart from substance addiction, Cox says recent incarceration, divorce, and unemployment are major factors that can lead to homelessness.
“For any one of us, for any reason, for something I have no control over, we could be the person who is experiencing homelessness,” Cox says. “So it’s really sobering to be able to be connected to that.”
How does the staff deal with the men’s problems day after day?
“It takes a great deal of patience,” McDaniel says. “It takes our willingness to forgive, because guys will make mistakes. Father McKenna would forgive people as much as he needed to, and so that’s what we try to do.”
Beyond meeting people’s basic physical needs, the Father McKenna Center is infused with a deeper sense of purpose.
“I do this job because I love God,” McDaniel says. “If I can’t love His creations, then I have no shot at having a relationship with God.”
The McKenna Center is located in the basement of St. Aloysius Church, which was a functioning Catholic parish until 2012, when the dwindling congregation merged with Holy Redeemer parish, located a couple of blocks away. That same year, a tornado damaged the roof of the upper church building, and today the building is shrouded in scaffolding as it undergoes restoration.
McDaniel says when the church closed and the McKenna Center became a standalone nonprofit, they fully took over the entire basement space. The former “social hall” of the church is now a gathering space and waiting room for men who are about to take showers, which are made available from 8 to 10 a.m.
Cox says the Center serves two distinct populations: men who are experiencing homelessness, and low-income families in the surrounding neighborhood. For the former, the Hypothermia Transition Program seeks to help men get off the streets, giving them the resources and encouragement necessary to transition into stable housing. For the families, a food pantry located in the center provides up to 17 shelf-stable items, as well as vegetables, fresh bread, and dairy products, to Ward 6 residents twice a month.
By July 2017 estimates, nearly 20% of D.C.’s residents live below the poverty line in one of the wealthiest metro areas in the country. The poverty rate for black residents is 27.9 percent, compared to just 7.9 percent for whites. In Ward 6, which includes historic Capitol Hill, the median household income is lower than the D.C. average.
Wards 7 and 8, across the Anacostia River to the southeast, have the highest poverty rates, the lowest incomes, and the highest obesity rates in the district. Both wards are more than 90 percent African-American.
Cox says it really touches her heart when community members take less food than they are offered, in order to leave enough for others.
“Instead of just a bag of food that’s pre-prepared, we let them ‘shop’ for what is appropriate for their families,” she says. “And you’re seeing that in other food pantries across the country.”
The church that houses the McKenna Center is located on the campus of Gonzaga College High School, a Jesuit all-boys school founded in 1821. Cox says as far as they are aware, it is the only high school in the country with a center for homeless men on its campus, which provides a unique opportunity for encounter. Freshman and sophomore students come to the Center every Thursday and Friday to volunteer during their long lunch period. If they come for the earlier shift, they help out in the food pantry, and the boys on the later shift will help to serve lunch to the guests.
Cox says the Jesuit high school is very conscious about creating “Men for Others.”
“For the boys, it’s a real encounter with people in need,” Cox says. “When the boys get a chance to sit down and start to interact with them, the men start giving them advice. They’ll say things like, ‘You gotta stay in school,’ or, ‘If you’ve got a talent and a dream, you need to follow it.’
“[The boys get] the opportunity to be around older men who have experience; to learn that just because someone’s homeless, [that] doesn’t mean they don’t have something valuable to offer.”
Of course, the relationship works both ways.
“For the men in our program, the ability to share wisdom and feel as like you’re having an impact on somebody, feeling like maybe you can help someone else...I think that’s the fundamental human aspect.”
It’s not just the boys who get involved. Members of the Gonzaga Mothers’ Club and their families cook a meal for the men every night from November 1 to April 1, then sit down to dine with them. Cox says that too is an opportunity for encounter.
“I can’t tell you how many families said their lives changed by that encounter,” she says. “They found out that people who are homeless are people first. So one of the things we do, in a very Catholic way, is to facilitate the encounter.
“These are men who have been chronically homeless for a year or more, and many of them have lost degrees of civility. This is a chance for those behaviors to be brought back.”
On the first and third Tuesday of each month, the Center opens their clothing closet to provide up to 50 men with the clothes and toiletries they need. The men are given a “budget” of between 50 and 60 points that they can spend on items— for example, a pair of socks or underwear may only cost one or two points, whereas a pair of shoes or boots will set them back 20 or 25. Many of the donations come from Gonzaga families, or simply people on the street walking by.
The Center serves as a mailing address for men who are regular participants in the program, so that they can get their IDs and credit cards. They are also able to give out tokens that work on the Metro and Metrobus systems that can get the men to a doctor’s appointment or verified job interview.
There’s also a computer lab with five computers, available for an hour and a half each morning, where the men can send emails and work on job applications.
For McKenna Center staff and volunteers, working at the center is about much more than meeting a person’s basic needs. It’s also about treating them with the dignity that comes from being children of God.
The 40 or so regularly scheduled volunteers that come to the Center are able to get to know the guests that come on the days when they are scheduled to volunteer.
“For people who are Christian, the opportunity to encounter Christ is very, very evident in a place like the Father McKenna Center,” Cox says. “We see Christ in his most vulnerable state...in someone who is in need of much more than just food and shelter, someone who is need of love, someone who is need of affirmation. And that’s what our volunteers get to experience: Christ in human form. It’s very powerful.”
Stephanie Caban is a former McKenna Center volunteer who was recently hired on as a staff member. She says she volunteered for three months in 2017 as part of her training for Franciscan Mission Service, an organization that sends lay missionaries to Latin and South America. The missionaries took a break from class one day a week to volunteer at the Center, where Caban was put in charge of the baking, despite her lack of previous kitchen experience. She loved her volunteer experience so much that she applied to work for the McKenna Center full time.
“Getting to know all the people here, it was comforting to know that they believed in the same mission that Father McKenna did,” she says. “Volunteers are really valued here, because the staff is very small and relies a lot on volunteers. So that was a bit of pressure, but it was also nice to be valued and appreciated.”
“Whether you’re religious or not, you’re still called to see the human dignity of every individual that steps inside this place,” Caban says. “I think that’s something everyone can experience, [and] everyone should experience.”
A Day at the Center
McDaniel meets with each man to talk about what he’s dealing with, offer advice, and provide access to resources. Around 35 men sign up to meet with McDaniel every morning.
At 11 a.m., McDaniel gathers the men in the former sanctuary of the basement church— what they now call the “chapel”— for a daily morning meeting. The men are only allowed to partake in the free lunch, served at noon, if they attend this meeting.
The meeting serves as a chance for McDaniel to address issues that are common to all the guests, as well as to offer a pep talk and encouragement to the men. While the content of the meeting is directed at the group at large, McDaniel will often call on or address men by name during the talk in order to make a point.
“If you’re homeless, how do you get proof of residency?” McDaniel asks the group.“If you come to me, and you say you need to get identification, I have a voucher I can give you that not only gives you proof of residency, but pays for your I.D. So there’s no excuse for you not having your I.D.”
McDaniel’s style is tough, but fair.
“Part of this whole thing is that we also have to become responsible in areas where we’ve been irresponsible,” he tells the men. “The reason the city made the rule that you can only use the voucher one time was because I averaged about three vouchers a year with a lot of guys. They lost their I.D. every couple of months.”
“The days of us being able to walk around without identification are over,” he tells them.
McDaniel unabashedly tells the men that he understands what they are going through, because as a youth, he was very much in their shoes. He tells them he has visited a therapist to treat his own manic depression for the past 17 years, and he encourages the men to think of mental illness like they would any other kind of illness, rather than thinking they are being labeled “crazy.”
“What you need to understand is that you can function normally with a diagnosis, but you have to be treated,” he says. “I look forward to seeing my therapist, because she helps me to process the events that have gone on in my life. And I come away from that feeling free.”
“If I’ve learned anything about homelessness, it’s that you need to be creative in getting yourself out of this,” McDaniel says, addressing the group at large. ”If I’d asked you early on, particularly when you all were teenagers, I bet 100% of us never thought we would find ourselves in this situation, true?”
“We’re not here to judge you, we’re here to deal with the situation you’re currently in. You can become homeless in many different ways, but what you want to avoid is catching the ‘disease’ of homelessness. It starts to disconnect you from the mainstream of life.”
McDaniel also addresses any volunteer groups that are present, particularly groups of young people who are in high school or college.
“It’s very important that you do believe that you can potentially end up this way,” he tells them. “Because that actually helps keep you from ending up this way.”
McDaniel is frank about the fact that D.C., compared to many cities in the United States, does offer a variety of resources for the homeless.
“A man who’s homeless in Washington D.C., who does not have a job, could conceivably have health insurance, and Food Stamps [SNAP]...That’s a pretty good situation to be in, isn’t it?” he says. “Go out to Ohio and see if that’s happening. Or go down to the South and see if that’s happening. It’s not happening. Washington D.C. is unique in that way. If you find yourself homeless and indigent in Washington D.C., you can get up.”
McDaniel calls addiction the “elephant in the room,” and spoke candidly about his own former drug addiction.
“Finally, twenty-two years ago, I said I’d had enough,” he says. “Up until then, I was constantly trying to find ways to justify and explain the fact that I always had to alter my mood. I was having problems dealing with the reality of life. And the reality was that I was going to have to be a responsible human being.”
“The key to you getting all this stuff lies in your ability to go do it. If you’re using a substance, or drinking, or and constantly clouding your judgement, you’re not going to get this stuff done.”
A Well-Used Space
The aptly named Blue Room at the back of the building does triple duty as a library, a dining room, and a bedroom for six to eight men from November 1 to April 1. To be eligible to sleep here, the men have a written application, written goals, and undergo a background check, since they’ll technically be sleeping on a high school campus. Cox says almost all the men that they select to sleep in the Center are right on the brink of solving their homelessness.
“They need a decent night’s sleep. They need a supportive community. They need intensive case management. And that’s what I can do in the Hypothermia [Transition] Program,” Cox says.
Cox says the Hypothermia Transition Program can offer a less chaotic and more focused environment than the larger homeless shelters throughout the city. At other shelters, she says, men who are working to better themselves— in other words, actually working to end their homelessness— may often be the target of bullying.
“When I started here...one of the guys was studying algebra for his GED,” she says. “There’s no way, if he was staying at one of the shelters in town, that he would have been successful at that.”
The Center can only do so much with the resources they have available. Offering refuge to twenty to thirty men in the harsh winter is no easy task in itself, and the fact that hundreds more are still out in the cold can make the task seem that much more daunting.
“We have great issues as far as enough space to do what we need,” McDaniel says. “If we had our [wishes], we’d have transitional housing, we’d have SRO [Single Room Occupancy] housing...[a man] would actually be able to come through this program, and once he graduated from one status he’d actually be able to move into another status without having to leave this environment. But of course we have to make do with what we have.”
Cox says the Center just announced a capital campaign to raise funds for a major renovation, set to be completed in February 2019. At least two Catholic priests, including Father Gap Lobiando and Monsignor John Enzler, CEO of Catholic Charities of Washington, sit on the Center’s board of directors.
Falling Through the Cracks
Why only serve men in the day program and hypothermia shelter? Cox says part of the answer is simply tradition: that’s the purpose for which the Father McKenna Center has always existed. But more than that, she says single men can sometimes fall through the cracks when it comes to social services. She says the community aspect of the Hypothermia Transition Program (HTP), where men can build camaraderie and even pray together, is hugely beneficial. Many friendships endure, including one pair of men who attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings together long after the HTP ended.
“There are lots of resources available for women and children, but we’re the last day program solely for men,” she says. “We believe men have particular needs that need to be addressed in a male environment. Because I feel very comfortable, personally, that there are many resources available for women and children, we can really focus our resources on men and the issues that they need to deal with to create a stable life.”
Francois Tshizubu, a guest at the Center, came to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo when he was 26 years old to become a commercial pilot. He says he was inspired to come to the U.S. to seek a better life partly by watching American television, and such shows as “Abbott and Costello.”
While Tshizubu says he has no complaints about the Center itself, he says the behavior of some of the guests can be irritating, and that the staff often have to display great patience when a guest is not cooperating with the rules.
Tshizubu says he is waiting for his passport renewal to arrive in the mail before he can leave Washington and go to Dallas, Texas. After that, he hopes to find a way to visit his family in Congo during the summer, which would be his first time returning to his homeland in 36 years.
“What I pray for most of the time is just to be healthy. If I’m not sick, I can manage,” he says.
He says his grandfather was one of the first Catholic missionaries in Congo, which makes him a “third generation Catholic.”
“Maybe I’m not the best [Catholic],” he says. “But...I’m not going to change. This is America, I worry about myself...If you don’t help yourself, there’s nobody who can help you.”
Luis Rivera, a Madison, Wisconsin native, says he is well on his way to becoming “himself again.”
“When I was in Madison, I was actually doing great things,” he says. “I went to school for culinary arts and restaurant management, I ran bars and restaurants, catering departments and hotels.
“Then I got into cocaine, and it killed me, pretty much. I lost touch with my family, with God, with everything. For three years I did that, and I lost everything. I was living on my mom’s couch.”
Wanting to start over, Rivera packed one suitcase full of clothes and took a bus to Washington D.C. from Connecticut, where he had been staying with his mother. He says the first week was really rough, because he ended up in a homeless shelter on New York Avenue.
“It was pretty dismal,” he says. “I was like, ‘Did I make the right decision? I’m pretty much just going to be in trouble here.’”
Then someone told him about the McKenna Center, and the promise of free lunch lured him in. He says McDaniel pulled him aside and recognized at once that he didn’t belong in the homeless shelter he was in, and put him in the Hypothermia Transition Program.
For Rivera, this meant being able to be calm and compose himself, away from the chaos of the shelter. Rivera says he has plans to go back to school to learn how to teach English to Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico, Bolivia, and Argentina who want to work in restaurant kitchens.
“It’s helped me find my ground again,” he says. “There’s a whole journey I still have to go through, but so far it’s going well. I feel like I can actually do it, instead of where I was before, where I could end up probably dead if I didn’t do something about it.”
Rivera now has a job at the Elephant and Castle restaurant in downtown D.C. His advice?
“Don’t be too proud, because everyone needs help once in a while,” he says. “You ask God for forgiveness, and to show you the way, and He will show you.”
Part II: A Broader Scope
Measuring the scope of homelessness in the United States is a daunting task.
Volunteers conduct point-in-time counts during the last 10 days of January each year to determine the number of people experiencing homelessness throughout the country. In 2017, volunteers counted 553,742 people without a home, about a third of whom were unsheltered, according to a report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The other two thirds were staying in an emergency shelter, or some kind of transitional housing program.
That means for every 10,000 people living in the United States, 17 are homeless. In D.C., around 1,400 people are chronically homeless, meaning they have been homeless repeatedly or constantly for years, and suffer from a serious, debilitating condition. At least 45 people died in 2017 while living on the streets of D.C., according to the Way Home Campaign.
Increases in the number of unsheltered people were heavily concentrated in the nation’s 50 largest cities, according to the HUD report. In Washington D.C., in particular, the homeless population has increased more than 40% since 2007, despite a slight decrease from 2016-17.
Several key political decisions can be cited when examining the state’s role in contributing to homelessness. From 1978 to 1983, the federal housing budget shrank from $83 billion to $18 billion, despite an increase in population of 12 million people. Although it left the program in place, the tax reform bill signed into law by President Donald Trump in December 2017 is expected to weaken the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, because a decrease in the corporate tax rate could make affordable housing projects less attractive to investors, leading to fewer units being built. The LIHTC program makes possible the building of about 90 percent of all low-income housing in the United States.
Many of the dominant narratives in political debate surrounding poverty, as well as in the media as a whole, tend to focus on the dichotomy between the rich and the poor as being due to innate differences in attitude and work ethic.
“Some politicians and political appointees with whom I spoke were completely sold on the narrative of...scammers sitting on comfortable sofas, watching color TVs, while surfing on their smart phones, all paid for by welfare,” says Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, describing his perceptions of the attitudes he observed after a visit to Los Angeles’ Skid Row, an area of the city where hundreds of homeless people live in what are essentially tent cities.
“I wonder how many of these politicians have ever visited poor areas, let alone spoken to those who dwell there. There are anecdotes aplenty, but evidence is nowhere to be seen.“
Alton says he found these assumptions about the differences between the rich and the poor to be widespread.
“[People think] the rich are industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic, and the drivers of economic success. The poor are wasters, losers, and scammers,” he says. “As a result, money spent on welfare is money down the drain. To complete the picture we are also told that the poor who want to make it in America can easily do so: they really can achieve the American dream if only they work hard enough.”
In Alton’s observation, however, this is not the case.
“The poor people I met from among the 40 million living in poverty were overwhelmingly either persons who had been born into poverty, or those who had been thrust there by circumstances largely beyond their control such as physical or mental disabilities, divorce, family breakdown, illness, old age, unlivable wages, or discrimination in the job market,” Alton says.
“The United States is one of the world’s richest, most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty.”
Welfare programs in the U.S. are popularly viewed as wasteful. A report by the United States Government Accountability Office in 2013 found that the Medicaid program, which provides care to 70 million Americans at an annual cost of nearly half a trillion dollars, had a 8.1 percent rate of “improper payments”—including “payments made for treatments or services that were not covered by program rules, that were not medically necessary, or that were billed for but never provided,” according to the report. The 8.1 percent rate equates to nearly $20 billion in improper payments, the second-highest rate of estimated improper payments among all federal programs.
A separate USGAO report estimated that among 79 programs spread among 17 agencies, the federal government disbursed an estimated $115 billion in improper payments in 2011.
Critics say improper payments are not necessarily fraudulent and are often attributable to error.
The Catholic Perspective
Pope Francis has made care for the homeless in Vatican City a priority, opening showers, a barber shop, a laundromat, and a 30-bed dormitory for the homeless over the course of his pontificate.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has long maintained, in accordance with Catholic social teaching, that housing not a commodity, but rather a human right.
“The right to housing is a consistent theme in our teaching and is found in the Church’s Charter of the Rights of the Family,” the USCCB said in a 1988 statement.
“We believe society has the responsibility to protect these rights, and the denial of housing to so many constitutes a terrible injustice. Housing is being seriously neglected as a priority of national concern, government action, and federal investment. We have witnessed the increasing abandonment of the national role in housing.”
The 2018 federal budget, which includes nearly $9 billion in cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has been met with concern by both the USCCB and Catholic Charities USA. Sr. Donna Markham, president and CEO of CCUSA, and Most Reverend Frank Dewane, Chairman for the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development at the USCCB, drafted a letter to the Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development in July 2017.
“Catholic Charities agencies provide housing services to over 450,000 people, including 31,000 permanent housing units and over 100,000 rental payments to keep clients in their homes,” Sr. Markham and Fr. Dewane write. “Despite these efforts, over 70 Catholic Charities agencies across the country continue to have waiting lists for housing. Indeed, over half of renters below the poverty line spend more than half of their income on housing. In response to such widespread unmet need, HUD programs need more resources, not less.”
“While Congress still faces serious challenges in balancing needs and resources, and allocating burdens and sacrifices, these programs that help to satisfy the basic human right to shelter should receive special attention.”
Finding a Way Out in DC
Angelia Eaton, 58, an advocate with Capitol Hill Group Ministry, became homeless herself after being hit by an uninsured driver. Although she was able to lean on family for a time, it got very hard for her and her two children, who were aged 12 and 4, to cope.
“I had my son at one sister’s house, my daughter at another’s, and I stayed at another’s,” she says. “We had to separate the family because there was no room at the shelters from October to January. I had to literally sit there in [Virginia Williams Family Resource Center] with a big old bag and my kids to actually get a spot.”
Eventually, Eaton and her family got a spot in a shelter where they were in a room with 30 families at a time, with sick children, babies, and and adults alike. Eaton is now living in Permanent Supportive Housing.
“It was heart wrenching, it was difficult, but thank God we made it through that.”
“I have a lot of homeless saying they don’t want to go to the shelters because of the conditions,” she says. “They’re moving constantly even though they sign up at one organization, they get moved all the way across town to another.”
Eaton says she wants the DC government to invest more money in permanent housing and social services, and also do a better job of announcing the programs that are available to the poor. She says it can be difficult for those experiencing homelessness to get organized and sort out all the options available to them.
“We’ve had people out here [on the streets] for 20 years,”she says. “Because of the way they’ve been treated, they don’t want to be a part of society, and that’s very unfortunate, because we’re all citizens and we all deserve housing.”
The Way Home Campaign is calling for a $32 million investment in housing solutions for 1,620 individuals and nearly $10 million for 309 families in D.C., which would equate to less than half a percent of the city’s $14 billion annual budget. Washington, D.C. is not in the top 20 U.S. cities in population, but it is tied for second when it comes to the size of its municipal budget; the city spends more than $15,000 per citizen each year, which is around $6,000 more than the next highest city.
The Influence of Catholic Charities
Monsignor John Enzler, President and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, says the three main areas of concern in Washington, as he sees them, are education for young children and teenagers; quality of employment; and a lack of affordable housing. Data released by the D.C. public schools in March 2018 show that less than half of seniors attending traditional public schools are on track to graduate this year, and more than half of DC metro area renters are cost-burdened, meaning they have to spend more than half their income on housing.
Catholic Charities of DC served 140,000 individuals last year, with the help of 8,000 volunteers; across the country, Msgr. Enzler says Catholic Charities has over 300,000 volunteers.
“The poor are often people who couldn’t make their last payment on their house, and are evicted,” Msgr. Enzler says. “Many of the people today that we deal with are people that are struggling just to find [their] way, once they’ve had a particular setback in their life, and it happens very often. Probably less than half are chronically poor.”
If a poor person’s spouse leaves or they lose their job, for example, Catholic Charities’ Parish Partners program acts as a safety net for those coming into any Church needing help. Msgr. Enzler says there are people working in those areas to help them, and their goal would be to, if possible, “get them that last $600, get their car fixed, or get medical help.”
“We want to deal with the situation before it becomes, frankly, out of control.” he says. “While they have stability, let’s keep them stable.”
“I think often times charities programs put Band-Aids on problems, which means we get that person a meal for tonight, get that person a bed for tonight, get that person a coat for today...but that doesn’t solve the problem,” Msgr. Enzler says. “It’s kind of a triage of ‘yeses’ that turns out to be something that helps people. Clothing, food, shelter, job...we try to expand that into the other areas as well.”
Msgr. Enzler says the goal is to have as many people as possible who can accompany the poor where they are.
“That’s a skill that lots of people have,” he says. “You don’t have to be a social worker to say, ‘I can help that person by cleaning out my closet.’ ‘I can help that person by providing some kind of training for a job.’ We do that well when we keep doing that as best we can.”
“We want to partner with the government, and they want us to partner with us,” Msgr. Enzler says. “The President’s recent budget spoke of some cuts in areas that we care about deeply. It does speak to a priority that says…we’re going to diminish services for those that are most vulnerable, and that concerns me a lot.”
He says for Catholics who want to make a difference in the lives of the poor, simply taking the time to ask someone’s name, rather than being overly concerned with handing out cash, can make a difference.
“We tend to walk on the other side of the street, we tend to turn our heads away, we tend to ignore,” he says. “I’d love to see everyone see every person we serve as a human being, as a sister or a brother, as someone who deserves our love and attention. What would Jesus do? What if we all just smiled and said hi?”
Msgr. Enzler says Catholic Charities is called to be the charitable arm of the Church, and does not openly proselytize because of government contracts. However, evangelization happens though service and the witness of the volunteers. He says service is one way that young people can experience God, and possibly be led through that back to the Church through a change of heart. The witness of his own parents in service to the poor had a profound effect on him when he was young.
“I think my whole commitment to the poor, to service, to helping others came almost from my DNA,” Msgr. Enzler says. “To see my father, and mother, giving back, thinking of others, was an important value.”
A Simple Solution
Msgr. Enzler’s exhortation to accompany the poor where they are is being lived out by many Catholic organizations in D.C.
One such organization is A Simple House of St. Francis and Alphonsus, a group of young missionaries who live in community and serve the citizens of the surrounding neighborhood. They attend Mass, pray every morning, and organize service projects for their neighbors.
A Simple House is located squarely in Ward 7, one of the poorest and most dangerous in the district.
Ryan Hehman, 33, a resident of the house, says the House’s founder Clark Massey made a couple of observations after volunteering in “project” neighborhoods in college.
“One, there’s almost zero church presence in this neighborhood, [apart from] our Bible study, even though there was a lot of social service help,” he says. “The second thing was that there were a lot of people like single moms, single grandmothers, and there was no one to come and visit them, to reach out to them and ask them what they needed. The only ways for people to get help were dependent on them going to some office somewhere at a certain time, bringing paperwork, and applying.”
“It seemed like there was an obvious need within project neighborhoods, areas with a lot of subsidized housing, poor neighborhoods...to do the reverse of the normal social service models,” Hehman says. “Go to the person, ask them what they need, provide a very personal help that meets each person individually, and addressed each issue as it comes.”
Hehman and the other missionaries emphasize that A Simple House does not merely exist to provide social services. It’s also an openly evangelistic organization, but not in the sense of a “soapbox on a street corner.” He says the spiritual part of the person is extremely important, and contributes to their physical health as well, so joining the physical and spiritual components are crucial for helping the poor.
Simple House missionaries engage in informal, friendly evangelizing that is not so much focused on a program of Catechesis as speaking the truth of the Gospel from our own experiences, and to other people’s experiences.
“We are Catholic, and we are trying to bring people to the Catholic Church as a way and means of improving their life,” Hehman says.
A Simple House— which actually consists of three small houses— is located in southeast D.C. across the Anacostia River from Capitol Hill, home to some of D.C.’s oldest suburbs, many of which were populated by whites (Uniontown) and freed slaves (Hillsdale) in the 1850s. In the 1900s, when highways began to be built and white residents moved to newer suburbs, the area began to decline and crime rates rose. Crime reached a peak in the 1990s, and today the southeast still has one of the highest concentrations of homicides in the city.
Though the Anacostia area is undergoing many revitalization projects and has many committed and enthusiastic residents supporting its renewal, at the time that the first Simple House was being established, there was still a sense, the missionaries say, that southeast D.C. was still the “war zone, forbidden place,” and that anyone would have laughed at the idea that it could ever be gentrified and become safe. But Massey recognized that “the bad place, the unmentionable place” is exactly where Christians need to go.
“We knew when I came that it was going to be very different,” missionary Chelsea St. Peter says. “We go in pairs and wear crucifixes, so people know we’re here to help. There’s a difference between going somewhere that makes us uncomfortable and somewhere that’s unsafe.”
Hehman says it’s difficult to measure exactly what kind of an impact the missionaries have had on the neighborhood at large, because the relationships they forge with community members are very long-term; he says they’ve been helping some families for a dozen years. Their metric isn’t the sheer number of people they help, but rather individual progress.
“When you’re starting with someone who can’t get out of bed, or is drug addicted, or homeless, there’s a lot of different ways your relationship can bear fruit, some of which are tiny, but worth great rejoicing,” Hehman says. “Someone improves a relationship with a son or daughter; or gets out of a toxic or abusive relationship; someone apologizes or forgives you after a misunderstanding.”
Beyond physical and emotional improvement, the missionaries have led 20-25 people into the Catholic Church over the years. One gentleman, who they had been helping for five years, came into the Church at Christmas.
Missionary Mary-Kate Burns says A Simple House’s aim is not necessarily a solution to poverty. The goal is salvation of souls, and you can’t do that just with material solutions. She says for the Church, the poor are not a problem to be solved; Jesus chose them as, in a sense, ambassadors. The missionaries, by their simple lifestyle, are called in some way to be poor, too.
“Agencies will say the one thing the poor need most is job training, housing, or parenting classes. They all may be good, but no one thing is the solution,” Hehman says. “Problems of the poor are complex. Human solutions are needed. We want to go way on the micro level and work one on one with people.
“We try to pray with people every time we see them. Seeing how God answers the prayers of the poor has been awesome.”
The residents of the house spend between two and four days a week working on various mission work projects, and the other days working on other administrative work. Because the House has no office staff, the missionaries share directorship responsibilities, running the mission and helping the poor at the same time. Hehman says this gives the missionaries a lot of flexibility to use the budget to serve the poor in the best way necessary, and also contributes to the organization’s low overhead costs— which includes no air conditioning.
“There’s something about the Gospels that you can’t really understand unless you’re living it out,” Burns says. “In living here in community I really understand a lot of the teachings that I had a hard time accepting before.”