Throughout last week, Bay Area media outlets made a concerted effort to focus on the issue of homelessness in San Francisco. They admittedly stepped beyond their role of just reporting the news and used their resources to try to creatively propose solutions to this vexing social issue. We consider this a real service to the folks we serve at St. Anthony’s.
St. Anthony’s has been very much a part of this effort: I have done a number of interviews for radio and TV, and our communications staff have arranged interviews with staff and guests and provided important background materials about our programs.
What consistently came through in the media’s coverage was confirmation of what surveys of San Franciscans show: 97 percent San Francisco residents say that they consider homeless to be a serious problem for the city (77 percent agree that it’s a “crisis”). Seventy percent say that they are pessimistic about whether this problem can be solved.
Perhaps not unrelated to this pessimism is the fact that most of the media’s discussion of the problem of homelessness in San Francisco pointed to city government as the party responsible for creating this crisis and the party responsible for coming up with solutions. That seems to me to be a recipe for pessimism: if we as members of the larger community point to those people over there, the homeless, as the problem, and then ask the agencies over here, the city, to clean it up, we are doomed to frustration and failure.
The Franciscan spirit that has guided St. Anthony’s all these years would have us look at things differently. Brothers and sisters without a home and forced to live on the streets—this is a problem that calls out to us as a community and invites us to find ways to be a neighbor to these people, to engage them and to show care and compassion. We see hints to the real solution to this issue every day at St. Anthony’s: the power of human connection.
Homelessness is more than a social, economic and political issue—it’s a moral issue. To cry out through headlines and editorials that homelessness is a disgrace, and that we as a city should be ashamed, expresses the social outrage that is often the necessary first step in confronting a moral issue. Noting the frustration of businesses and homeowners who want this problem (read “those people”) to just go away is a disturbing but accurate portrayal of current attitudes. But that frustration and outrage is never enough. Pointing the finger at apparently inept city bureaucracies is only a momentarily satisfying but very small part of a creative solution. The underlying problem cannot be addressed until we come to know and care for these fellow San Franciscans. The political will that is needed to direct city resources to provide enough housing and mental health care to help our brothers and sisters depends on the realization that this is about all of us. We have structured our life together in ways that make it impossible for some people to share in the wealth that we as a society have created.
We should be less concerned about what others may think of us and our beloved city because there are tents and needles on our streets, and more concerned about the lives of those living in those tents and self-medicating with those needles. True moral development arises not from responding to what others might think of us, but rather from what we are called to be for others. The more we engage with these men and women forced to live on the streets we discover that pushing them away is not the solution but is the source of the problem. They are resourceful, often resilient people who are also very isolated and often in severe emotional pain. Their attempts to numb that pain only exacerbates their plight and further breaks the human connections that we all long for.
The local media campaign promised to move beyond indictment to offer solutions. I applaud the work they have done and the remedies they lay out. In suggesting increased housing opportunities and more concerted efforts to address mental health they are making the case for creating the conditions necessary to heal the human connections that have been broken. But those solutions will only find support if the people of San Francisco recognize in these men and women people like ourselves. In many Christian churches this weekend, people will listen to the famous Gospel story of the Good Samaritan. It begins with a question by a scholar who seems to want to narrow down his responsibilities by asking just who is my neighbor (who must I love). It ends with Jesus asking “who do you think was neighbor to this man lying on the side of the road.”