Lent provides opportunity for Catholics to focus attention on homeless

IMAGE: CNS photo/Chaz Muth

By Chaz Muth

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Almsgiving is a Lenten tradition and Washington
resident Ron Van Bellen says his volunteer work feeding the homeless honors his
Catholic faith as he prepares for Easter.

The real estate agent and parishioner at Holy Trinity
Catholic Church in Georgetown was one of several volunteers dishing up dinner
for homeless men and women lined up March 8 for the weekly St. Maria’s meals
program sponsored by Catholic Charities each Wednesday evening.

Van Bellen took time to greet each man and woman who went
through the food line before they made their way along the downtown Washington
sidewalk to eat their dinner.

“Every time I volunteer I reflect on how my day went and how
it related to my relationship with God,” he told Catholic News Service. “It
does relate to Lent. We have to sacrifice and serve our brothers and sisters.”

Van Bellen’s example of helping the homeless during Lent is
a Catholic value that Washington’s Catholic Charities president and CEO, Msgr.
John Enzler, would like to see spread across the U.S.

It’s clear in the Scriptures that fasting and penance goes
beyond not eating meat on Fridays and giving something up during Lent, Msgr.
Enzler told CNS. “It’s about making someone else’s life better with your
service and your commitment.”

The homeless are among the world’s most vulnerable people and
providing service to them during Lent is an ideal way for Catholics to live out
their faith in a way that will make a real difference, he said.

Concerted efforts by religious and governmental
organizations to address the U.S. homeless situation appear to be making a

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
reported a 3 percent drop in the national homeless rate from 2015 to 2016
and a 12 percent drop in the last five years.

HUD reported the 2016 national homeless population to be
nearly 550,000.

However, the homeless rate rose from 2015 to 2016 in the
District of Columbia and a few states, including Alabama, California,
Colorado, Hawaii, Oklahoma and Washington.

With more than a half million people still considered
homeless, it’s an issue that all U.S. cities confront and there are varying
solutions being employed to raise money necessary to address it in a
consequential way, Msgr. Enzler said.

In its effort to fund anti-homelessness programs, Los
Angeles County placed a proposal called Measure H on its ballot during its
March 7 election.

If passed, Measure H would raise the sales tax a quarter
cent. Ballots were still being counted as of March 16 to determine the outcome
of the measure.

“There doesn’t seem to be a secret sauce, if you will, about
how to completely eradicate homelessness,” Msgr. Enzler said. “But, it seems to
me that we just don’t have enough case workers and social workers.”

He believes more people need to serve as navigators, mentors
or coaches for individual homeless men and women.

“We don’t have enough people who can really step in and say,
‘I’m going to help this one individual,'” Msgr. Enzler said, “and say ‘it’s my
job to help just that one person get a job and get a place to stay and stay
with them. Mentor them through that process.'”

He has been encouraging volunteers in his Catholic Charities’
programs to make the homeless their focal point during Lent.

Pope Francis has long urged governments and Christians to
recognize the dignity of the homeless and help ease their suffering.

Homelessness became more complicated in the nation’s capital this Lenten season, since the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library
shut down March 4 for a three-year, multimillion-dollar renovation.

Many D.C. homeless men and women used that library branch as
a day resource center, a place to get out of the elements during the daytime
hours, to use the computer lab to look for work and to use the public
restrooms, Msgr. Enzler said.

That closure inspired him to explore a partnership between
the District of Columbia and other charitable groups to fund an official day
resource center for the homeless, complete with a meal program, laundry and
shower facilities, as well as job counselors, case managers and social workers.

It’s an idea that is still percolating with no commitments yet
realized, Msgr. Enzler said.

It’s also an idea that Able Putu, a 37-year-old
homeless Washingtonian who uses a wheelchair, would like to see come to fruition.

Putu said the library closure left him without a place to
rest, use the lavatory and made him more vulnerable to being robbed during the
daytime hours.

“I know a lot of people think the homeless are scum and
aren’t worthy of anyone’s help, and maybe that’s true about some of them,” Putu
said, “but it’s not true about most of us.”

Van Bellen said he had been one of those people with a
negative opinion of the homeless before he started his volunteer work.

“I found out that those were misperceptions,” he said. “What
I’ve discovered is the homeless people I’ve encountered here are sweet and
definitely misunderstood. I wouldn’t have figured that out if I hadn’t exposed
myself to them.”

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Chaz Muth on Twitter: @Chazmaniandevyl.

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