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Pastoral leaders discuss church response to homeless crisis

December 3, 2015
Christina Gray

How can the local church best respond to the unprecedented rise in the numbers of homeless people – in particular the number of homeless families and children – in all three counties of the Archdiocese of San Francisco?

That’s the question Auxiliary Bishop William J. Justice posed to pastors, deacons, religious and other concerned pastoral workers who gathered at the archdiocese’s Pastoral Center on Nov. 20 to listen to a panel of advocates discuss their work with San Francisco’s homeless population, 40 percent of whom are members of homeless families.

Bishop Justice called a local church response to homelessness “a challenge, but also a gift.”

“We wanted to gather together and hear what the agencies are doing and what they need, and then discuss among ourselves what we can do,” he said.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition for Homelessness in San Francisco and one of the day’s four presenters, said there are over 3,000 homeless children in San Francisco – more than double that of only five years ago. Skyrocketing housing costs and evictions are displacing families rapidly, she said, and shelters, geared toward single adults, aren’t prepared to accommodate them.

The Archdiocese of San Francisco’s office of public policy and social concerns, with support and leadership from Bishop Justice, coordinated the two-hour meeting and invited Friedenbach to share the historical and statistical landscape of homelessness in San Francisco.

Freidenbach said that her agency works hard to refute the notion that homelessness is a lifestyle choice. “It’s most often the result of extreme poverty,” she said.

San Francisco’s average rent far exceeds a service-sector employee’s paycheck and is 3.5 times the amount of a public assistance check. Low-income families are being unlawfully evicted so landlords can collect a higher rent, she said. Currently, 8,000 households are on a waiting list for subsidized housing.

Other panel members included Emily Cohen of Project Homeless Connect; Nella Goncalves of Housing Support Services at Catholic Charities; and Margi English of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

The meeting coincided with the Pope Francis-proclaimed Jubilee Holy Year of Mercy, which begins Dec. 8. Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, unable to attend the meeting because of a meeting with U.S. bishops in Maryland, sent a message that was read aloud to the group of 50 or so participants.

“… I pray today that we energize our work together and increase our numbers in service within the archdiocese,” he said.

The archbishop recalled the pope’s words after visiting a homeless shelter early in his papacy: “To love God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete; it means seeing in every person the face of the Lord to be served, to serve him concretely.”

Statistics provided by the Coalition for Homeless state that the life expectancy of a homeless person is 20 years fewer than their housed counterpart.

“It’s almost impossible for a homeless person to remain healthy and thrive as a human being,” said Friedenbach.

She said the church’s teachings on the dignity of the human person could be emphasized and extended to the homeless more in local parishes.

“Your parishioners are craving information on this issue and we encourage you to incorporate this into your homilies,” she said.

“This is a defining moment for San Francisco, this disparity of poverty and wealth,” said Deacon Rory Desmond of St. Stephen Parish in San Francisco, during a discussion after the panelists’ presentations. “I think the Catholic Church is called to that response.”

Bishop Justice said that discussions will continue with pastors in local deaneries with the goal of creating an archdiocese-wide homeless response plan.

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