by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
The Cry of the Poor reaches us from all sorts of situations, as we have seen in previous columns. One of these is that of street people, the homeless, those reduced to begging on city corners. True to his way of looking at all poverties, through the eyes of those who suffer them, Pope Francis has a Gospel-oriented view of this major reality in today’s world.
But first, a quick look at the way society looks at these children of God who wander our streets trying just to survive. The view is startling but not all negative. Startling because, for example, in the Capital City of the United States fully 16% of its total population lives in poverty. On a single night in 2019 the Central Union Mission counted 6,521 people out on the streets of D.C. In at least three of metropolitan Washington’s counties, it is illegal for people to beg. Tourists to the city are given advice on how to deal with “aggressive” street people asking for money.
Unfortunately, we lack the space here to detail the scandal of numberless veterans of American wars who now find themselves on our streets asking for a handout. It is summed up in one statement from a veterans’ affairs publication: “Veteran homelessness is completely unacceptable in a society that glorifies the sacrifices these young men and women have made on a daily basis!”
The reaction to homelessness, however, is not entirely negative. In fact, a quick survey finds some quite benign statements regarding these sisters and brothers. The Washington Post, for example, wrote in a recent editorial, “panhandlers deserve dignity not your pity.” Another comment insisted that helping people who beg is a personal decision but at a minimum one should recognize them as fellow human beings by smiling and wishing them a good day. Another agency, the Business Improvement District of Washington, publishes services for the homeless: where they can obtain food and shelter, as well as maps and phone numbers to direct them.
For us who often debate with ourselves about the prudence of a handout, the concern that it will be used for other things except real needs, Pope Francis dismisses all such doubts and takes this entire tragic reality to another level. He has become “The Father of the Poor” (my phrase) in the world today. His example and words about treatment of the homeless, the street people and those who must beg to survive should guide all of us who wonder about the proper Christian response to their cry.
It is reported that as Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio often sneaked out of his residence and spent nights sitting and eating with the street people there. His walking pilgrimages through the “villas miserias” (miserable slums) around the city are famous — he never needed protection, so well familiar was he in those areas. Now as pope his advice to us non-poor is direct and Christlike: “We cannot become starched Christians, too polite, who speak of theology over tea… We have to seek out those who are most needy.” He says, “There are many excuses to justify why one doesn’t lend a hand when asked by a person begging on the street. But giving something to someone in need is always right and it should be done with respect. We should give to them without a thought. We should look them in the eye and maybe shake their hand.” (Incredibly, an American bishop seemed to take issue with these statements when he quickly followed up on them by discouraging this practice!)
The Pope’s convictions on this matter are clear, unshakable, constant —and institutionalized. His Vatican City gives the homeless VIP treatment including showers and haircuts.
The history of the Francis papacy will surely describe it as that of a Preferential Option for the Poor. It is already a guiding light for the “new normal” we are striving for.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.