‘Hope Lives Here’: Catholics Work to Solve Crisis of Homelessness

Different approaches all add up to the same result: faith-filled and heartfelt efforts to reach out to our brothers and sisters in need.

Clockwise from top: The ministries of Journeys in the Chicago area, the St. Teresa of Calcutta Villa in San Diego and LAMP in the Bronx, New York, and New York City aid the homeless.
Clockwise from top: The ministries of Journeys in the Chicago area, the St. Teresa of Calcutta Villa in San Diego and LAMP in the Bronx, New York, and New York City aid the homeless. (photo: Courtesy of Journeys, LAMP and St. Teresa of Calcutta Villa/Father Joe's Villages, photo by Jim Brady)

The last time Albert Zuniga was arrested by the San Diego Police, an officer said to him, “You have a life. Go out there and find it.” 

“That stuck with me,” recalled Zuniga, 60. “I said, ‘I’m sick and tired of doing this, going to jail and having no one to call because I burned all my bridges.’ I asked the Lord that day: ‘Will you please work with me?’”

Striving to turn his life around, Zuniga ended up in a transitional living facility — and then one day his upstairs neighbors told him about a new opportunity. Father Joe’s Villages, the oldest homeless services provider in Southern California, was accepting applications for St. Teresa of Calcutta Villa. Zuniga prayed about it and sent in his application. 

On Jan. 24, 2022, he moved into his apartment in the villa. 

“Hope lives here,” he reported. “Every night I go to sleep, I say, ‘Thank you, Jesus.’ It’s just a Godsend.” 

 

A Complex Equation

It’s a Godsend for hundreds of Zuniga’s neighbors, too. The 14-story St. Theresa of Calcutta Villa on the San Diego campus of Father Joe’s Village comprises 407 residential units. And they’re needed now more than ever. 

Recent reports show that homelessness in San Diego County has increased 10% since January 2020 — to more than 8,400 people — despite increases in shelter beds and residential units like those at the Villa. 

Those numbers are wildly overshadowed by statistics in San Diego’s neighbor to the north, Los Angeles County. Results for the 2022 Greater Los Angeles Point-in-Time Homeless Count have not yet been released, but in January 2020, the count tallied 66,433 people experiencing homelessness across the county, more than 41,000 of them in the city of Los Angeles. 

But 16,000 more units of housing are on the horizon, according to an April 1 settlement the city of Los Angeles reached with LA Alliance for Human Rights, a group made up of community members, business owners, nonprofit service providers, and unhoused individuals.

“It was a true David-and-Goliath fight,” said lead attorney Elizabeth Mitchell. “There was a time when homelessness and drug addiction was in one area of the city the city could ignore. Now, it’s everywhere. 

“The worst thing about this is the loss of humanity that I think people are experiencing in Los Angeles. You see someone lying all the street, all the time. It used to be, you see someone lying on the street, ‘I have to call 911.’ Now, they just step over them. It could be a dead body in the street, and no one knows.” 

As wheels start turning to develop those 16,000 units of housing, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez is looking ahead to an August ribbon-cutting ceremony and blessing at Pico Home, a residence for pregnant women and their children. 

According to the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Health, more than 5,000 pregnant women each year are homeless at some point in their pregnancy; but in the city of Los Angeles, there are fewer than 70 shelter beds available for pregnant women. With the opening of Pico Home — operated by Harvest Home — there is an opportunity for 30 more pregnant women to safely shelter.

But shelter is only part of the equation, according to Deacon Joe Vargas, president and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages.

“As we build our shelters and affordable housing, we need to make sure we have the resources” to meet clients’ needs, he pointed out. 

“That’s what’s truly going to make a difference — not just a bed, not just a shelter.”

 

Pandemic Problems

Though the numbers may be more dramatic in the Golden State, homelessness occurs in every state of the union, and many organizations and individuals across the country are striving to provide services, as well as shelter, to those who need it. 

In the Chicago metro area, the Clerics of St. Viator partnered with Journeys, which serves those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless in suburban Cook County. 

In March 2020, Journeys requested $63,000 from the Viatorians as seed money for a program desperately needed during the pandemic. Journeys works with faith communities to provide shelter for clients — an approach that had come to an abrupt end due to Centers for Disease Control guidelines. 

“We were the first in the industry to move homeless individuals into a hotel setting,” explained Executive Director Beth Nabors. “Obviously, we did not have that in our budget. We were not prepared for that.” 

Since that initial gift from the Viatorians, Journeys has developed other funding streams to keep the temporary placement program going. As of this writing, 115 individuals continue to be sheltered in hotels and motels (shelters are expected to reopen later this year).

“I was a social worker for many, many years in Chicago; I volunteered in a shelter in Chicago for several years. It’s something that’s very close to us,” said Viatorian Brother Michael Gosch, assistant provincial for the clerics of St. Viator Province of Chicago. “I would often see people living under viaducts, and I saw the tent cities on the Chicago River. 

“You can’t walk past people and not be affected by that.” 

 

Acts of Mercy

Of course, shelter is a vital concern, but there are many vital concerns when serving those who are experiencing homelessness. In New York City and the Bronx, LAMP (Lay Apostolic Ministries with the Poor) exercises a radically different approach. From its start more than 40 years ago, LAMP has focused on evangelization with the materially poor, according to the pastoral co-director, Marybeth Greene.

“The physical needs — there’s a certain kind of demand about that, and urgency. It’s easy to forget about the spiritual needs,” she explained, noting that Pope Francis mentioned this in Evangelli Gaudium

“… I want to say, with regret, that the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care,” he wrote.

That isn’t to say that LAMP ignores pressing physical needs. The volunteers, who typically sign on for a year of service, and small staff always keep a list of resources handy, so they can direct the people they serve to job training, clothing resources and more. LAMP also operates a “canteen truck” that they use to “bring lunches and the love of Jesus” to several Bronx neighborhoods, Green said. 

“That’s the only real physical need that is part of our everyday ministry, yet we really do try not to focus so much [on that],” said Green. “The people know that. A lot of people come, and they pass up the sandwich. ‘I just want to be with you. I just want prayers today.’

“It’s a very unique ministry. It’s really simple, but it can be profound, seeing people’s lives begin to change in a way that only God can do.

“There’s nothing like it in this world, I have to say.” 


This story was updated July 25 to provide more information about the efforts of the LA Alliance for Human Rights.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

Which Way Is Heaven?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s mystic west was inspired by the legendary voyage of St. Brendan, who sailed on a quest for a Paradise in the midst and mists of the ocean.