Even with the long warm fall New England has enjoyed this year, there will be a winter and it will be cold. People living on the streets or moving from shelter to shelter will become more obvious, as most of the rest of us do less outside activities and stay inside on the cold days. As we enter a coffee shop or a fast food restaurant we are liable to meet the homeless. Some will be standing looking desperate; others will beg for a handout. Sometimes the homeless knock on car windows or mutely stand there at intersections holding placards begging for work or money.
Only the hardest of hearts cannot be stirred by people standing outside against bitter winter weather, begging for attention and help. As with any serious problem, an easy fix is not a solution. Support for affordable housing options, drug treatment centers, employment opportunities and mental health treatment are the foundational efforts necessary to eliminate homelessness. Yet, in the meantime, what do we do when seeing people so desperately in need and in danger from the ravings of bitter winter days.
A young mother was talking about the homeless and her responsibility to teach her children about love and compassion in action. She prepares baggies with hats and gloves and a McDonald’s gift card inside. As she drives her children to school and other activities, they learn to give away the little care baggies when they pass a homeless person. She wants her children to learn to act in the face of human misery.
How many of us have boxes of gloves, hats and scarves in our closets at home? No reason we can’t stick a few in our pockets or in the glove compartments of our cars to have ready when needed. If we can afford to buy a cup of coffee, most of us can afford to buy an extra one for the person hanging outside the shop.
Stores have begun the sales and advertising for Christmas already. As families, perhaps we can become more creative in our exchange of gifts. Warm clothes for a local shelter or hats and gloves for the homeless could be more significant gifts than something no one needs or even wants. The abundance of storage units and the popularity of junk collection services are indicative of a society that has too much. And we are willing to spend money to store our excess or to cart it away. At what point do we have the courage and honesty to say, “Enough!”?
Pope Francis has led the way in showing us how to respond to homelessness. He has kept his eyes open in Rome and seen the poor living on the streets of the Vatican. First he fed them, then he got them showers and barbers, and finally shelters. Once he started acting, others helped. We all pay attention to the fact that he rides in an economy car, not a limousine, and that he still wears his old shoes. The trappings of the Pontifical apartments and office he has refused, choosing instead to live in a modest apartment where he shares Eucharist and meals with whoever else is there.
Francis is the Vicar of Christ. Yet he is a Christian just as we are, and he will be held accountable to the same standards of judgment. Jesus told us clearly that we will be judged on whether we fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited the imprisoned and sheltered the homeless. When we take off our scarf on a cold day and wrap it around the neck of a shivering street person, we are wrapping it around Christ.
Sister Patricia McCarthy is provincial for the Congregation of Notre Dame. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.