My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
January has been designated as Poverty Awareness Month by many organizations. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops joins with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development in calling attention to the issue of poverty, especially in our own country.
We are following the example of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, who in his encyclical, The Joy of the Gospel, Evangelii Gaudium, clearly stated what he said at the beginning of his pontificate, “I want a Church which is poor for the poor.”
This seemingly radical statement has many implications. If the Church is to serve the poor, then the Church itself must certainly act as the poor do, meaning that it must be dependent on the providence of God and not rely on its own resources. The poor necessarily are dependent on others for the basic necessities of life. There is no special charism that the poor have to be able to bear the burden of their poverty.
Unfortunately, many see poverty as the result of laziness or inactivity. This is called “blaming the victim.” If we understand the nature of poverty, however, we recognize that in the vast majority of cases it is well beyond the ability of the individual to bring themselves out of poverty.
I always fall back on this definition which I either heard or came up with myself; the rich are those who do not need what they have, and the poor are those who do not have what they need. What are the basic things that are needed to live? Obviously, it is housing, food, medical care and education. These are the basic human needs that every society tries to provide to its members. The provision of these basic human needs, however, varies from society to society.
If we look to our own City of New York, we recognize that the homeless issue has recently once again come to our attention. Although in comparison to the past, homelessness is, comparatively speaking, less than a quantitative problem than it was in the past, it still is a major problem for those who experience it. Most especially, homelessness is a great burden for children who consequently have so much difficulty in obtaining a decent education, as well as the other basic human needs.
The recent efforts of our city and state officials to deal with this problem have involved the Church, through Catholic Charities and even individual parishes who have tried their best to offer, as in the case of parishes, temporary overnight shelter and meals for the homeless. The housing program of Catholic Charities is basically aimed at providing decent and affordable housing for seniors, families, persons with special needs, and former homeless individuals. In November, Catholic Charities increased the capacity of an existing facility housing former homeless individuals by 22 newly constructed units. These units have been made available to formerly homeless veterans. Additionally, Catholic Charities is adding nine newly constructed units at another similar facility. Catholic Charities also operates in collaboration with New York City Department of Homeless Services Home Base, a program designed to prevent homeless.
The Church has been ever vigilant and active in trying to do its part to provide permanent housing for the homeless. In 1983, at the request of then-Mayor Ed Koch, Bishop Francis J. Mugavero, the fifth Bishop of Brooklyn, dedicated four church properties into Caring Communities, one of the first permanent supportive housing developments in Brooklyn.
To date, the Diocese of Brooklyn has dedicated 26 church properties for housing developed by Catholic Charities Progress of Peoples Development Corporation (POP). The result is 3,687 units of permanent and affordable housing for low-income seniors, families, many of whom were at risk of becoming homeless. Additionally, Catholic Charities POP has developed 479 studio apartments for former homeless individuals.
Unfortunately, as our city becomes gentrified in certain areas, the rising rents displace lower-income families who find it difficult to find appropriate housing commensurate with their income. For the most part, these are working families whose income is not capable to pay the ever-rising rents in our city. The commitment of the Diocese, especially through the work of our Catholic Charities, will continue to assist as many people as possible in finding the basic need of housing.
When it comes to the basic need of food, our Diocese here in Brooklyn and Queens through parish food pantries and, some run directly by Catholic Charities, assist in trying to make nourishing food available to needy families.
Being aware of poverty is important. However, what is more important is to double our efforts in trying to assist those who find themselves in economic distress. The increase of the minimum wage may have some effect on eliminating poverty in our city and state. Most importantly, for we who are Christians and Catholics, we must heed the words of the Lord, Himself, when we hear in the Beatitudes that the poor in spirit will be blessed, be they poor in economic terms or poor in their attitude towards whatever they possess. Also, in the scene of the Last Judgment, the Lord tells us about the corporal works of mercy, which in this Year of Mercy take on special significance.
As we have launched ourselves into the Year of Mercy and as we begin this New Year, we can put out into the deep and make it our resolution to perform some of the corporal works of mercy such as feeding the hungry and housing the homeless. Each individual can do something to alleviate the poverty, physical poverty, that we see among us. Only when we conquer our spiritual poverty through prayer, penance and sacrifice will physical poverty be impacted.