Lent Reflection: Sheltering the Homeless

When we think about homelessness in light of the corporal work of sheltering the homeless, we often think of people on the street. Who hasn’t passed by a pile of blankets and cardboard and felt the pain of knowing there was likely a person breathing underneath?

My father has a story to tell about dealing with the pangs of guilt that can arise when we are in the midst of someone homeless. One winter in Washington, several decades ago, he gave his coat to a man whom he had passed many times on the way home from work. My father described it as a brown leather jacket that he had worked hard to afford and which he was very fond of. A week later, he stopped by the liquor store in the neighborhood and saw the jacket on the man behind the register. He felt anger and rage while being told the story of a “bum” who had traded it in for a “bottle.”

The truth is, it’s complicated to analyze why a person is homeless. It happens for an endless multitude of reasons, and although there are trends, I am neither a social worker nor a psychologist ready to answer those questions.

Even still, there is a question which sits heavy in my heart that I wish I had the answer to and I cannot seem seem to shake. Why are children homeless?

In a speech Pope Francis gave to youth groups in Peru, a broadcast I watched live one rainy Saturday night at home and one we revisited in our Young Adults Retreat this weekend, the Pope was asked “why do children suffer?” As a teacher, and as an only child who longed for a sibling, it remains a persistent question in my heart as well. Why do children suffer? And why can we not give a child a home?

Last year, The National Center on Family Homelessness issued a comprehensive state-by-state report revealing that the number of homeless children is the highest it has ever been in our nations history: 2.5 million children were counted homeless, amounting to one child in every 30. The report also concluded that there are now three main causes: our nation’s high poverty rate, the lack of affordable housing and the surge of domestic violence and abuse within families.

Child homelessness increased nationally by 8% from 2012 to 2013 (growing faster than the Dow Jones did that same year) and the states ranked the worst were Mississippi, Alabama and California. Despite these rankings, the District of Columbia deals with child homelessness on a daily basis.

The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness reported that, in 2013, 600 children were homeless simply within the city itself, not counting the greater Washington area. As Petula Dvorak of The Washington Post describes, they’re sleeping each night in DC General Emergency Family Shelter or “in cars, bus shelters, Metro stations, apartment-house lobbies or on a different couch every night.”

In trying to understand who these littlest homeless Washingtonians are, I came across the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project. Their mission is to set up safe spaces and frequent visits for volunteers to help homeless children enjoy playtime. I also discovered that there are schedules and locations in which you can participate weekly,

I can share what I’ve learned about child homelessness and I can offer ways for us to give our time, love and mercy – and that is important. And yet, I feel the best reflection I can offer is my own prayer:

Our father, who art in Heaven,

see these children tonight.

Let their feet know a “welcome mat” that is their own.

Let their eyes slumber on a pillow warm only from their cheek.

Give us this Lent the grace to stand taller than we usually do,

so that we may offer some time towards their lives.

Forgive us the ways we take the roofs over our heads

for granted minute by minute.

And lead us not into the temptation of thinking any of this is ours,

but deliver us into the peaceful remembrance

that we are all at home in Washington, and in You.

For Thine is the tea kettle, and the bathrobe and the window pane

forever and ever.