What Can We Do About Homelessness?

by | Mar 5, 2020 | Formation, Homelessness, Reflections, Systemic change | 3 comments

I would like to conclude with highlights from the concluding section of a recent publication by my confrere and former Superior General, Robert Maloney’s  Welcoming the Stranger St. Vincent de Paul and the Homeless. It is entitled, BLENDING SYSTEMIC CHANGE AND A “CULTURE OF ENCOUNTER” IN SERVING THE HOMELESS

Guidance from Pope Francis

Over the last several years, Pope Francis has highlighted three themes that have enormous relevance for the Vincentian Family.

First, he has stated repeatedly, as St. Vincent did, that the poor are a gift to us and that we need to let them evangelize us.

Secondly, Pope Francis has often emphasized the need for structural or systemic change.

Thirdly, Pope Francis has urged contemporary society to create a “culture of encounter” and a “culture of dialogue,” in which we are prepared not only to give, but also to receive from others. Hospitality, he says, grows from both giving and receiving. He warns against the “globalization of indifference.”

What can we do?

Fr. Maloney concludes with some practical suggestions on how we might work together for systemic change and, at the same time, create a “culture of encounter” in our work with the homeless.

Listening to the homeless

Listening is essential in bringing about systemic change. The first two principles that the Commission for Promoting Systemic Change teaches are:
Listen carefully and seek to understand the needs and aspirations of the poor, creating an atmosphere of respect and mutual confidence, and fostering self-esteem among the people.

Involve the poor themselves, including the young and women, at all stages: identification of needs, planning, implementation, evaluation and revision.

In his wonderful book on community, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The first service that one owes to others in the community consists in listening to them.”

Seeing and serving Christ in the homeless

Following Jesus’ lead in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Vincent continually urged his followers to see the face of Christ in the face of those in need. Recently, John Rybolt has reminded us of the “white tablecloth,” a charming detail that accents dignity. In the rule that Vincent wrote in 1617 for the first Confraternity of Charity in Châtillon, he instructed them how to enter a person room and literally spread a tablecloth. See below for his exact words…

Offering friendship

Friendship lies at the heart of Jesus’ relationship with his followers. He says to them, “I no longer call you servants. I call you friends.”The relationship of friendship is characterized by warmth, conversation, sharing, service, sacrifice and forgiveness.

Vincent calls us to treat those we serve not as “the poor” but as persons. In the end, all good care is relational.  We offer people not just lodging, but hospitality. We visit them in their homes.  We reach out to them in friendship.

Providing holistic service

Homelessness affects the whole person, physically, psychologically, emotionally, and relationally. We have all experienced how deep the wounds of the marginalized are. Many homeless people suffer the stigma of prejudice within their own country or in a foreign land. Many find themselves isolated and lonely. Some struggle with psychological or drug or alcohol problems. Some do not speak the local language well. Many have legal or medical problems. Many suffer from depression and have lost joy in life.

Holistic service is fundamental to systemic change. Everything is connected to everything else.  When any single element in a system breaks down, everything else is affected.

Serving as advocates

A systemic approach calls us to stand at the side of the homeless as their advocates: advocates striving to wipe out prejudice, advocates striving to win the support of governments and foundations, advocates striving to reunite them with their families and with communities which may have isolated them. Here, let me simply note that many of strategies formulated by the Vincentian Family Commission for Promoting Systemic Change coincide with the best practices formulated by organizations that are successful in advocating with and for the homelessness.

I append this touching description of how Vincent conceived serving the poor.

Then, after preparing their dinner, they will take them, at nine o’clock, some soup and meat in a pot, some bread in a white cloth, and some wine in a bottle. They will do the same for supper around four o’clock in the afternoon. When they enter the patient’s room, they will greet him or her in a friendly way; then, drawing near to the bed with a cheerful expression, they will encourage him to eat, raising the head of the bed, arranging the cover, setting up the little tray, the white tablecloth, plate, and spoon, rinsing out the glass, pouring some soup on the bread, putting the meat on a small plate, saying grace with him and feeding him the soup. They will cut up the meat and help him to eat it, while saying some little light-hearted, consoling word in an effort to cheer him up. They will also pour him something to drink, inviting him once again to eat. Lastly, when he has finished eating and the dishes have been washed, the tablecloth folded, and the tray removed, they will say grace with the patient, and leave him right away in order to go serve someone else.

CCD:XIIIb:40; also CCD:XIIIb:12 and 13. Cf. a brief video on the topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CgJVAC7Na8.


  1. Dee Mansi

    Fr Michael I’m delighted you have decided to write a series of pieces drawing together past and present evidence of St Vincent’s micro and macro involvement in delivering service to the poor. So you can imagine my horror and disappointment at viewing the “revisionist” YouTube video which has airbrushed the original 17th Confraternities in Châtillon and leaps directly to 19th century Ozanam plus 5 companions and Sr Rendu’s sterling service. Where is AIC in all of this?

  2. Clara Scherr

    Father, Thank You for sharing Vincent’s view of serving the poor. It reminds me of my early experiences as a nurse aide and nurse in assisting the sick. Serving with a cheerful countenance and light conversation is always a part of loving service.

  3. John Freund, CM

    Dear Dee,

    Thank you for your questions about Fr. Carroll’s article. Let me offer my personal reflection.

    Your point is well taken!

    However, in the context of this video, the interviewer was asking a question from the perspective of the Vincent de Paul Society. Fr, Rybolt is simply answering his question.

    It was not intended to cover the history and development of the Confraternities and how they later were called Ladies of Charity.

    There is also the little known story about how the “Ladies of Charity” morphed into the “AIC”. I am told the shift in title had much to do with how the phrase “Ladies of Charity” is understood in other parts of the world.

    This history is indeed significant and facets of the story are just beginning to be understood and indeed the story needs to be told.