Do I, how do I, approach and give alms to all those men and women on street corners with “homeless” signs? I am so conflicted.
— Bill from Springfield
Amid a nationwide pandemic, our homeless population is growing at an alarming rate. It seems that anytime a conversation begins as to how we are to address the homeless population, we are met with many controversial opinions. Are they really homeless? Don’t they choose to be homeless? If you give them money, won’t they just spend it on drugs and alcohol? These are just a few questions and comments that always come up.
First, I would like to shed some light on what I have learned from the homeless that we minister to and then look at how we are to respond to the homeless as disciples of Jesus Christ.
First and foremost, no one chooses to be homeless. They may have made the decision to live their lives on the street but something else in their life failed and drove them to that decision.
Many people have labeled the homeless as drug addicts or alcoholics and merely view them as a nuisance to our society. I think that it would be safe to say that 80 percent of the homeless population are mental health patients. With that being said, the term “mental health” throws up another flag that seems to make us even more reluctant to approach a homeless person on the street. Just to clarify, anyone taking prescribed medication for mental health wellness could be called a “mental health patient.”
As many of us have experienced the changes that our minds and bodies may go through when we are taken off any prescribed medication, this often becomes the first step in becoming homeless. For whatever reason, the person has lost access to their medication and their daily lives begin to change. As this change becomes more drastic, they will often times turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to self-medicate and in their minds, bringing a new normal to their lives.
You may be surprised that many of the homeless do not drink or do drugs at all. Others will tell you that before they became homeless, they drank very little or not at all. It simply becomes a coping mechanism when they have nowhere to turn.
So, what is our obligation to the homeless as disciples of Jesus Christ? Homelessness is not a temporary problem. The Gospel readings tell us that the poor will always be with us, but many have trained themselves to look the other way. To live out the Corporal Works of Mercy is a responsibility that we were given at baptism. To live out the Gospel teachings of Jesus Christ is our faith.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to give to others unconditionally and beyond our excess. So, what should we do when we see a person on the corner holding a sign? Are they really homeless? It does not matter if they are truly homeless, they are a brother or sister in Christ, and they are asking for our help. If they are acting under false pretenses, then that is on them. You are still responding to their call for help. Stop and talk with them, listen to their story. Do not make them qualify for your assistance but rather give to them from your heart.
Are they going to just spend the money on drugs or alcohol? Although alcohol and some recreational drugs are not illegal, we should never condone any type of substance abuse. However, when I give to the homeless or anyone in need, I give unconditionally from my heart.
Although it is not what we wanted for them, if that drink or drug fix prevents them from hurting themselves until they find help, you may have saved a life that day.
Stop at the corner and talk to them. Show them that someone cares. Give to them unconditionally from your heart, and remember, Jesus would never just look the other way.
Mick Palazzolo is a deacon at St. Aloysius Parish in Springfield. Editor’s note: We asked Deacon Palazzolo to answer this Hey, Father! question because of his and the parish’s active role in helping the homeless through their Street Ministry. Their team hits the streets of Springfield every two weeks personally handing out food, socks, and basic necessities to those living on the streets. They also pray with each individual who wants to.