IN PAST PRESIDENTIAL elections, homelessness has been cast as one of the most pressing crises facing the country; this year, the issue is rarely mentioned. Democrats and Republicans are now equally eager to pass punitive laws against “vagrancy,” and to reform what many perceive as an overly-generous welfare system. New York, San Francisco and other cities have passed laws against panhandling, sleeping in public, and additional measures designed to curb the activities of the homeless.

Some observers argue that among the homeless there is a core group of professional beggars who refuse help offered by shelters, and need harsh measures to convince them to change their lifestyle. Others see the new laws as aimed at soothing people's consciences by forcing the homeless out of sight.

“There are many people on the streets of Sacramento,” said David Pollard, associate director for public policy of the California Catholic Conference (CCC). “But the city has developed plans to have them less visible and less obtrusive. This is doubly true in the [San Francisco] Bay area and Los Angeles.”

Pollard said the plight of the homeless is a non-issue in this election. “The administration in power hasn't alleviated it. The challengers to them haven't alleviated it. Neither side can promise they're going to eliminate it, because both have had the opportunity.”

Nancy Wisdo, director of the Office of Domestic Development at the United States Catholic Conference (USCC), agrees that the homeless issue has become less visible. “It's not that people don't care anymore—it's just the opposite. Homelessness and helping the homeless has become an industry in itself. But so many people are involved in helping the homeless that we fail to ask the larger question of why people are homeless and why they don't get permanent housing—they're shuttled from shelter to shelter.”

Father Joe Carroll, founder of St. Vincent de Paul Village, a model full-service help facility in San Diego, thinks the issue of homelessness has lost voters' attention recently because the numbers of homeless have stabilized, now running about one-quarter to one-half percent of a city's population. In addition to providing meals and housing to homeless individuals and families for over 14 years, St. Vincent de Paul Village provides education, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, medical care, parenting classes, psychological counseling and other services designed to address the root problems which prevent homeless persons from functioning effectively in society. St. Vincent de Paul's also provides lunch each day for thousands of homeless who do not live at the shelter. The number of daily meals nearly doubled in 1994 after the City of San Diego passed zoning restrictions which closed many smaller shelters and soup kitchens run by other churches.

Father Carroll believes the homeless issue will come to the forefront in the next few years, estimating that, as a result of new welfare reform measures, the numbers of homeless will double or triple. He said the “block grants” that will be given to states can easily be abused, with funds either being used up in bureaucracies before they reach local programs providing services to the homeless, or being spent on other things. “l think they'll find reasons to build roads and police stations in poor neighborhoods, rather than shelters,” said Carroll. “The money that goes to meals, literacy, or job training will go to make the cities look beautiful.”

Welfare reform, added the CCC's Pollard, will initially cause an upheaval in methods of delivering services to the homeless. Federal money will be given to each state for welfare programs, to be administered at the state's discretion. Pollard predicts that with the upcoming reduction in federal programs, Catholic organizations will likely also be called upon to provide childcare, emergency food, as well as temporary and permanent housing. He notes that, since government assistance will now be denied to legal immigrants (illegal immigrants are already excluded from nearly all aid), private programs like Catholic Charities will be all the more important. “One thing that is very clear is we are going to have to do something relative to immigrants—what will the response of Catholic hospitals and Catholic Charities be to the denial of prenatal care to undocumented women and their babies? What is going to be the effect relative to legal immigrants? None of that is clear.”

Pollard doesn't see the transition to private charities and local rather than federal management as all bad: “Ultimately, it becomes a renewed opportunity for people to be personally conscious of their individual responsibility. But to say good will come out of it, I don't want to vindicate the political actions that brought it to be.” Pollard said it has yet to be determined whether private groups can be as efficient as large federal programs. He emphasized the importance of personal contact between the poor and homeless with other members of society, explaining the benefits to his son, a senior at a Jesuit High School near Sacramento, who spent the summer working at a center for youngsters with learning disabilities.

“One of the greatest rewards he experienced was that connection with others. He sat down with this kid on a one-to-one basis and all of a sudden, the kid not only saw the importance of education, but saw someone who cared enough to use his summertime volunteering to help him,” said Pollard. “These kinds of messages need to be communicated to every human being. That is the essence of Catholic social ministry. That's one of the things that is missing from the welfare system. But the two are not incompatible; that can be a complement to a well thought-out, sensibly administered financial assistance program.”

Mark and Louise Zwick also laud the idea of personal contact. The couple run the Houston Catholic Worker, providing food and housing for hundreds of homeless, especially immigrants, relying solely on donations from local businesses and individuals. The group has three shelters— two short-term and one long-term, as well as programs for distribution of food, clothing and other necessities. The Zwicks contend, in the tradition of Catholic Worker founders Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, that personal interaction with the poor is essential—for the person in need, as well as for the soul of the person providing assistance. They also are quick to mention the far-reaching, unseen effects from such practice of the Corporal Works of Mercy.

Said the CCC's Pollard: “The Catholic response historically and throughout the world is, where you find the suffering human being, you supply what's needed.”

Father Carroll agrees, but is less optimistic about small private initiatives making up for reductions in government programs. “[St. Vincent de Paul Village] can feed 4,000 people a day; a parish soup kitchen might feed 50, and much less cost-effectively.”

Lesley Payne is based in San Diego.