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 God-the 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 US Conference of Mayors revealed a sharp rise of homelessness in major cities in 2006. Officials estimate that, on average, single men comprise 51 percent of the homeless population, families with children 30 percent, single women 17 percent, and unaccompanied youth 2 percent. The homeless population is estimated to be 42 percent African-American, 39 percent white, 13 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Native-American, and 2 percent Asian. An average of 16 percent of homeless people is considered mentally ill; 26 percent are substance abusers. Thirteen percent are employed; 9 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:
- Lack of community support for de-institutionalized people with chronic mental illness
- Discontinuance or reduction of public benefits to significant numbers of elderly and disabled people
- A minimum-wage structure that locks the working poor into poverty
- Loss of family farms
- Closure of plants and businesses
- An economy increasingly built on low-paying temporary and seasonal jobs with few or no benefits
- The increasing number of single-parent households with associated low incomes
- The lack of housing for people with AIDS
- Displacement of inner-city residents by urban renewal.
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:
- Provide to clergy and laity educational, training resources and opportunities that address the root causes of homelessness and provide models for addressing the problem.
- Urge seminaries to include courses in their curriculum that help prepare clergy for effective leadership around systemic contradictions in our society that create poverty and homelessness.
- Encourage annual conferences to include courses in their plans for continuing education for clergy at least once a quadrennium.
- Continue to support and work with national, regional, and local housing advocacy groups to implement this resolution.
- Join with other communions to promote affordable housing for low-income persons through the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, the National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and other appropriate networks.
- Document and affirm the work of local churches and service providers who provide needed ministries of compassion to homeless persons through church-based soup kitchens, transitional housing programs, shelters, food pantries, clothes closets, and rent and utility assistance programs. Promote their efforts throughout the local church by soliciting financial contributions and volunteer support, and by encouraging members to contribute specialized skills and technical assistance.
- Identify effective existing models and provide new models for local congregations and clergy who wish to undertake Bible study and theological reflection around the root causes of homelessness.
2. Annual Conference Recommendations:
- Participate in "End Homelessness in Ten Years" grassroots efforts led by the National Alliance to End Homelessness
- Inform clergy and laity of the avenues available to churches to become involved in housing development by exposing them to different models used to address the lack of affordable housing.
- Adopt a resolution on homelessness encouraging actions at the congregational level to address the homeless crisis in local communities.
- Encourage local churches to conduct a survey on homelessness in their areas to determine what services are currently being provided and to discover gaps in services toward which the church should direct its efforts.
- Support cooperative parishes as a major strategy for responding to the problem of homelessness.
3. Local Church Recommendations:
- Involve clergy and laity in local church volunteers networks, direct-service programs, ecumenical coalitions for the homeless, directories of local service providers, speaking opportunities for groups such as Habitat for Humanity, and workshops led by local homeless advocates and the homeless themselves.
- Promote local church-based community organizing efforts to empower neighborhoods and influence government at every level.
4. All Levels of the Church:
- Call upon Congress to pass comprehensive national housing legislation, as outlined in the General Conference resolution on housing.
revised and readopted 2008
resolution #116, 2004 book of resolutions
resolution #105, 2000 book of resolutions
See Social Principles, ¶ 162 and 162A.
From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church - 2008. Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.