January 11, 2018

Homelessness presents increasing challenge; Whether driven by spiking numbers or winter cold, Church meets rising needs of homeless people from coast to coast

By Jim Graves, Our Sunday Visitor

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Point in Time Count released in December, the size of the homeless population in America increased by several thousand over the previous year to nearly 554,000 nationwide, with the biggest growth in West Coast cities. A strong economy in the West has led to increases in rents, leading to unaffordable cost of housing for some low-skilled workers. At least 10 West Coast city and county governments have declared states of emergency to seek solutions to the growing problem.

Two-thirds of the nation’s homeless are individuals and a third are families; nearly a quarter of the homeless are children, including some unaccompanied by an adult. Physical and mental illness and substance abuse plague the homeless population, which also has a far higher mortality rate than the general population. The homeless are also at higher risk of being victims of violence.

Regional response

While regions of major cities on the West Coast and Hawaii are popular tourist attractions drawing people from all over the world, wealthy communities often exist alongside the homeless and destitute. San Francisco, for example, is home to many wealthy people but also has a persistent homeless problem. The Archdiocese of San Francisco plays a prominent role in assisting the nearly 8,000 homeless in the city, working in cooperation with local government to offer relief.

Ellen Hammerle of Catholic Charities San Francisco has worked with the homeless for 19 years providing “a great continuum of care services” for those who are open to receiving help. Services include providing subsidies to those struggling to afford housing to finding housing for those out on the streets. They also help individuals find jobs, secure health care, provide services for children and assist with other basic needs. Hammerle explained, “We work with the City to move the homeless in and out of care as they need it, as well as to help them stay housed or find housing.”

The homeless or near-homeless may contact Catholic Charities for help, or connect with them when their staff ventures into the city to meet people in the streets. They see their role as helping the homeless problem-solve, and ultimately finding them housing. Priority is given to those in most acute need; a pregnant woman, for example, would be first on the list for available shelter beds. Hammerle says the homeless she meets come to the streets through a variety of routes. Divorce and family breakup is a significant factor, as well as generational poverty, lack of education, mental health issues and drug and alcohol abuse. A few refuse help, she said, but most are eager to be housed again.


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