Homelessness in the United States
The biblical mandate to care for the poor is clear as put forth in Isaiah 58:6-7 where God says "Is not this the fast that I choose . . . to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; [and] when you see the naked, to cover them?" The homeless are most assuredly the people of Godthe people of God who call the church to both repentance and action. They are the hungry we are asked to feed, the strangers we are to welcome, and the naked that we are to clothe. They are the sick and imprisoned we are commanded to visit (Matthew 25:31-36). Theologian Walter Brueggemann says, "The Bible itself is primarily concerned with the issue of being displaced and yearning for a place." What we must seek for all people is safe, sanitary, and affordable housing. The church is called to not only seek to provide shelter but we must do more than house the homeless, we must build community. Home as a promise to the homeless must be the ongoing commitment of the church.
In the most materially rich nation in the world, the homeless are all around us. They are the lonely who pass their time talking to themselves in every big city and small town in the nation. They are rural families without the economic means to travel long distances to shelters and other public services. The homeless are people who have been displaced and discarded. Their numbers alone make them a nation of strangers, highly mobile and rootless, surrounded by wealth, glamour, and excess of all of that which they so desperately lack. Even in a strong economy, no less than 2.3 million adults and children, nearly one percent of the population is likely to experience a spell of homelessness at least once during a year; the numbers grow larger as the economy recedes.
Homelessness is a crisis that strikes at the soul of the nation and at the heart of the church. A study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors revealed a sharp rise of homelessness in major cities in 2000. The study estimates that on average, single men comprise 40 percent of the homeless population, families with children 40 percent, single women 14 percent, and unaccompanied minors four percent. The homeless population is estimated to be 50 percent African American, 35 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic, two percent Native American, and one percent Asian. An average of 22 percent of homeless people in the cities are considered mentally ill; 34 percent are substance abusers; 20 percent are employed; and 11 percent are veterans.
Homelessness has many faces and many causes, but its root is in the failure of the nation to commit itself through public policies and programs to eradicate poverty. Homelessness and poverty cannot be separated. A comprehensive, all-out attack on poverty must be waged. In order to wage this attach the following factors must be addressed:
In addition to the above, the shortage of affordable housing also contributes greatly to this plight of homelessness. In its 2002 report, the Millennial Housing Commission, a bipartisan commission created by Congress, found that housing affordability is the single greatest challenge facing the nation.
Homelessness is both a rural and an urban problem. The rural homeless tend to be young, white, and female. Rural shelters are scarce, so homeless people often double up with friends and relatives. The Housing Assistance Council has found that rural homeless people are migrant workers, displaced renters, bankrupt farmers, and laid-off workers. Native Americans and other residents on Indian reservations are increasingly found among the rural homeless. Extremely high unemployment, coupled with the increased numbers of Native American people returning to live on reservations, has placed undue burdens on an already overtaxed and inadequate social service system. Rural homeless people often migrate to cities, thus contributing to urban homelessness.
The United Methodist Church must continue to affirm the right of all persons to live without deprivation in safe, sanitary, and affordable housing. The United Methodist Church must clearly assert that inequitable public policies, unfair and discriminatory private-sector practices have deprived many of that right. The church must teach its constituents that homelessness is a violation of human dignity and an affront to the biblical mandate to do justice. We must use all our power to eliminate the causes of homelessness and to work along with others to eradicate it. The Bible calls us to commit ourselves to welcoming the stranger into our midst and to seeing all people as belonging to the family of God. The church must recognize in deed as well as word that homeless people are our neighbors, seek to learn who are the homeless in our communities and speak out on their behalf in our congregations and in the larger community.
The following actions are recommended to general agencies, annual conferences, and local churches:
1. General Agency Recommendations:
2. Annual Conference Recommendations:
3. Local Church Recommendations:
4. All Levels of the Church: Call upon Congress to pass comprehensive national housing legislation, as outlined in the General Con-ference resolution on housing.
See Social Principles, Ά 162A.