The Vincentian Family at the United Nations decided to focus our efforts this year on the issue of homelessness. According to the most recent report by the UN, which was 2005, there were an estimated 100 million people who were homeless worldwide.
As many as 1.6 billion lack adequate housing, as reported by Habitat for Humanity in 2015.
On a single night in January 2015, there were over 564,000 people without homes in the United States.
These are staggering figures. Even more so when you put aside the numbers, and allow it to register, we’re talking about people. Our sisters and brothers. They have names. They have identities.
I’m writing this from a place of privilege and at the moment, extreme comfort.
The juxtaposition is not lost on me.
This week I’m in Rome. I’m one of the more than 9,000 members of the Vincentian Family fortunate to be here for the 400 anniversary of our Vincentian Charism. We are traveling from all parts of the world, many of us staying in fancy hotels, eating fine food, and drinking good wine.
I took a walk along the Tiber River yesterday, which is directly across from my hotel. I can see it from my balcony, where I’m sitting right now, as I write this.
During my walk I came upon several groups of homeless men. They were mostly inebriated, or under the influence. Several of them greeted me, not asking for a hand out. They simply wanted to connect, to be human. They wanted to be respectful of me, and they wanted me to respect them. They wanted to be acknowledged.
I live in New York City, where the homeless population is legendary. We’ve witnessed countless mayors come up with a plan, only to see it fail.
Urban homelessness is well documented. Rural homelessness not so much.
And homelessness in developing countries is rarely talked about.
There are families living on piles of garbage in some parts of the world. These families, including children, work as scavengers. It’s not unheard of for these garbage dumps to collapse, or spontaneously combust, killing people and leaving family members injured, and even more distant from the safety of a real home. On March 18, 2017 dozens died and nearly 50 “homes” were destroyed in Ethiopia when a mountain of rubbish collapsed.
There are people throughout the world being displaced due to war and other manmade causes.
There are entire nations facing displacement due to climate change, and rising sea levels.
In July 2017, based on national reports 150 million people, or about 2% of the worlds population is said to be homeless.
The reported numbers of homeless individuals and families may be inaccurate.
Counting the homeless is difficult. In some countries the government will under report to save face.
Parents often will deny their homelessness in fear of losing their children to foster care or the government.
Homeless youth will also hide from authorities. They fear being sent back home to uncertain family situations. And those who have aged out of the foster care system in the US are frequently untrusting of all authority.
The mentally ill, and addicted homeless will also avoid being counted. They frequently prefer street living to the confinement of shelters or rehabilitation facilities.
You can see, the numbers presented here are most likely inaccurate.
So, what are we doing at the UN?
We’re bringing our unique relationship with the homeless to the table.
We’re serving as the voice of those who would otherwise have no voice.
As a Vincentian in New York City, I’ve been in close contact with many homeless people over the years.
We hosted a shelter for the homeless at my parish for more than 40 years. We see the suffering and the determination of many homeless people first hand. I’ve made “home” visits to people living on the city streets. We Vincentians have the opportunity to recognize our homeless sisters and brothers as family, and we see the face of Jesus in them.
At the UN, we are able to present the stories of the homeless to the larger, global forum. We speak with conviction.
This year we’ll be hosting a side event to highlight the plight of homeless people throughout the world. We’ll invite members of other NGOs, as well as governmental agencies to join us. The hope is to make them aware of not just the bland facts, but to also help them hear the voices of the homeless. Perhaps feel the plight in a more profound way than before our event.
Hopefully we’ll touch a heart or two, and inspire policy change.
The numbers are staggering. We may never be able to eradicate global homelessness.
We can at least make people aware of the pain, the desperation of living day to day without a place to call home.