“No man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse.”
— Benedict XVI
If you have not had the opportunity to work with people experiencing extreme poverty and homelessness you might have some preconceived notions about what that looks or feels like. Sometimes it is easy to think that “these people” are different from me. At times people experiencing homelessness may look different from us because of years they spend in poverty — without healthcare or access to basic comforts like showers or laundry.
But visible distinguishing features do not make a person homeless. They are parents and children, men and women, old and young, and every different race and background. There are, however, some risk factors and commonalities that can be discerned in the general population — things like experiences of trauma in childhood or behavioral health diagnoses. Those are things we can work to prevent, but we must strive to put our preconceived notions aside.
At Catholic Social Services, we are committed to treating every person we meet with dignity and respect. That means meeting them where they are and exploring with them how they find permanent stability. We are part of the communitywide effort to address the issues of homelessness and extreme poverty at a systems level, exploring how our community can adapt our environment, policies and approaches to support an overall reduction in the number of people experiencing homelessness. That high level approach is where my education and training lead me, but we can never do that at the expense of the individual.
We must look at the greater good and still face and meet individual people with dignity and respect. We are all blessed with the same gift of life and we all have in common the respect we deserve as people.
Regardless of how you look or even of bad choices you have made in the past, you deserve basic respect and dignity. At CSS we try to take that a step further and suspend judgment. Pope Francis famously said, “who am I to judge,” and who indeed are any of us. The people we serve come to us from so many pathways, and our role is to meet them and work with them as they transition to permanent stability.
Recently our Catholic Social Services Board Chair, Michael Fredericks, a business owner and architect in Anchorage, and I were presenting to the Homeless Resource Advisory Committee, an Anchorage group that represents people experiencing homelessness. Some in the group may still be in homelessness, others are in housing. Many had not stayed at Brother Francis Shelter as they had been sleeping outside. One woman said that she had never stayed there because she was afraid. I understand. Brother Francis Shelter is a crowded place, and as the lowest barrier shelter in town, there are some people there who struggle in ways that can feel uncomfortable to people around them. When the woman expressed her fear, immediately Michael Fredericks said, “I have never stayed there either. Let’s go down together.”
How many of us would have offered the same? Michael Fredericks is living out our Catholic Social Teachings and our mission. She is meeting people where they are and saying, “I am like you — let us walk together.”
The writer is executive director of Catholic Social Services in Alaska. For more on CSS, call 222-7300 or visit cssalaska.org.