David Goldman / AP

Pope urges compassion amid homeless crisis in US cities

Francis says 'no social or moral justification' for lack of housing, as cities react with both services and crackdowns

Immediately after Pope Francis addressed Congress on Thursday amid the pomp and preening of the U.S. capital’s political class, he headed downtown to help serve lunch to a gathering of homeless people at St. Patrick in the City and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Speaking in Spanish to a crowd of about 400 people, the pope called for charity and compassion for the poor, adding that there was “no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.”

His comments highlight an issue that has reached crisis levels in many major U.S. cities. Los Angeles recently declared a “state of emergency” because of its rising number of homeless people. As Francis arrived in the United States on Wednesday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan announced that the city and the Roman Catholic Church would partner to provide 150 beds and social services this winter for homeless people living on the streets.

“Pope Francis’ visit is a time to reflect on our common humanity and obligations to one another,” de Blasio said. “Too often, our city’s homeless are stigmatized, ostracized, dehumanized, and we must remember that they are our fellow human beings in crisis.”

De Blasio has been under pressure to do more to help the city’s homeless, a population that has swelled 65 percent in the last decade to reach 60,000Advocates for homeless rights staged a rally earlier this month to protest de Blasio’s orders to shutter urban campsites where homeless people had been dwelling. Many of the city’s homeless are children. The Coalition for the Homeless reported in 2014 that an all-time high of 22,712 were sleeping in New York City shelters that year.

The de Blasio administration has said it will invest more than $84 million over the next four years for outreach workers to help people living on the streets, and for more shelter beds.

Also on Wednesday, the city of Los Angeles proposed spending $100 million dollars to help get the city’s nearly 45,000 homeless people off the streets, though officials did not say where the funding would come from.

In San Francisco, where the homeless population grew by about 4 percent in the last year to nearly 6,700, a new “navigation center” opened in the Mission District earlier this year. The center is a temporary space for people living in San Francisco's many homeless encampments to move for about 10 days and seek social services and help for finding more permanent housing. The center has less stringent rules and won’t break up couples or groups of friends from the encampments — a concern that has kept people out of other shelters in the past, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said he would reallocate $3 million from other programs to create another such center for the homeless in a different part of the city.

“This truly is a center where people homeless and living on the street can navigate the services the city offers, all in one place,” Lee said on Sept. 10. “We must do more and we must do better.”

But San Francisco, like many other cities, is also using law enforcement to crack down on homeless people. Police plan to clear out an encampment across the street from the city’s popular Ferry Building before the 2016 Super Bowl.

In Honolulu, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against the city earlier this month, accusing it of depriving homeless people of food, medication and identification during police raids on encampmentsAnd a city law in Boise, Idaho bans homeless people from sleeping on the street, which the U.S. Department of Justice said was a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Bill of Rights.

Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the Washington-based National Alliance to End Homelessness, lauded Francis for discussing the need for housing the homeless, adding that advocates are at a critical juncture in terms of helping them.

While some cities have reduced homelessness with a “housing first” approach — quickly finding permanent housing for people who need it — skyrocketing rents have forced people onto the streets at a pace that has overwhelmed a number of other cities.

It can be tempting, then, “for communities to go back to criminalization kinds of policies, or policies of forcing homeless people to move from place to place,” Berg said. “One key is whether communities will continue that housing first approach. And whether we as a society will put enough priority on this to spend the money.”

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