During his recent visit to St. Patrick Catholic Parish in Washington, D.C. Pope Francis spoke to a group of homeless men and women. “We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.” If the Pope is right that there is no justification for homelessness—or to put the same thing differently, if the homeless have a right to a home—then there must be an obligation to provide them with homes.
The promotion of social justice requires creativity as well as healing. Our efforts to heal are often ad hoc and temporary—what we often call “charity”—not because of ill will but because we don’t know what else to do. But that’s where creativity must enter. I have noticed that Pope Francis has referred several times to the need for creativity in solving problems: at least 17 times in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and 22 times in Laudato Si, the encyclical on the environment and poverty. Here’s one example: “Human creativity cannot be suppressed. If an artist cannot be stopped from using his or her creativity, neither should those who possess particular gifts for the advancement of science and technology be prevented from using their God-given talents for the service of others” (Laudato Si # 131). Everyone is able in some degree to participate in social and economic life, but without a home, the capacity for that participation is severely reduced.
Thanks to a creative social scientist from New York University, there is a method for reducing homelessness that has already proven itself a practical success. As with many solutions, it is startlingly simple: give the homeless homes first—and then offer them free health care, counseling and an income.
The social scientist at NYU is the psychologist Sam Tsemberis. He introduced a new model for helping homeless people. The old model was essentially to prepare homeless people for housing. That meant getting them healthcare and needed treatment as well as leading them through the maze of red tape required to receive services in order to be home-ready. But many of the homeless have problems that make that preparatory phase for getting a home very difficult and so many do not get thorough the process. Tsemberis’ simple but creative idea was to reverse the sequence of events: give them a home first, then work on providing for their other needs. “Why not just give them a place to live and offer them free counseling and therapy, health care, and let them decide if they want to participate? Why not treat chronically homeless people as human beings and members of our community who have a basic right to housing and health care?” Tsemberis recognized that “[g]oing from homelessness into a home changes a person’s psychological identity from outcast to member of the community….You actually need housing to achieve sobriety and stability, not the other way around.”
It worked. Tsemberis tested his hypothesis with 242 individuals and after five years, 88% were still in their homes. In fact, it worked so well that several cities adopted this “Housing First” approach and found significant success. With the help of the Mormons, the state of Utah adopted the model and in the process provided relief for strained social service resources. All of the communities across the nation that have adopted this model have saved money on publically financed social services by providing homeless people homes.
Creative projects such as “Housing First” are not one-way streets, the advantaged helping the disadvantaged. To be itself, to continually constitute itself anew in history, the Church must seek out and embrace intelligent solutions wherever they are to be found, while encouraging the larger society of which it is a part to do the same. Pope Francis again: “Any Church community, if it thinks it can comfortably go its own way without creative concern and effective cooperation in helping the poor to live with dignity and reaching out to everyone, will also risk breaking down, however much it may talk about social issues or criticize governments. It will easily drift into a spiritual worldliness camouflaged by religious practices, unproductive meetings and empty talk” (Evangelii Gaudium 207). All communities risk breakdown if they do not bring their best research and thinking to bear on the needs of their fellow citizens.
Moral decision-making and action require more than good will; we all know how the surface on the road to hell is paved. Promotion of the common good requires intelligent and creative solutions. Wherever intelligent solutions are to be found, well-intentioned Christians should seek them out and cooperate with those who are already implementing them.
David Hammond teaches theology and church history for Saint Joseph’s College.