Justice Matters
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“Every perspective on economic life that is human, moral and Christian must be shaped by three questions: What does the economy do for people? What does it do to people? And how do people participate in it?” -- Economic Justice for All, USCCB, 1986.

I was thinking of writing to challenge you to experience living on the streets for one day. It isn’t too hard to imagine how you could do that. Put on old clothes that are somewhat dirty. Put a few things into a backpack. Leave your cash (except for maybe $5) and credit cards at home. If you take your cell phone, make sure it is not charged. Then go out downtown and walk around. Try to find some place where you can get something to eat. Try to find shelter from the sun or rain or wind. Try to find a restroom that you can use.

I realized that my challenge would be a bluff because I would not be willing to accept it myself.

The closest I have ever been to being homeless was on backpacking trips. Even though I had really good boots and light weight equipment, I had sore feet at the end of the day and my back hurt from carrying the pack. I woke up each morning with numerous aches and pains from sleeping on the ground. I remember how I felt after about five days on the trail. I would be covered in trail dust and other dust left behind by the mules who also walk on the trail. My clothes would be stiff with salt. I would smell like a skunk. And I would want nothing more than a shower and clean socks.

Why are there so many people living on the streets these days?

Most studies point to the cost of housing increasing faster than wages. It is almost an axiom of our economic system that property owners want to keep rents high. And that employers want to keep wages low.

A huge percentage of unhoused people suffer from mental illness and or substance addiction. Which is cause and which is effect? I can’t answer that, but I can say this. Life on the streets is not easy and it is not safe. It is stressful and dangerous. Drugs are readily available and cheap, and perhaps provide some temporary relief from the daily misery.

What are we called to do as Christians? The Gospel makes it pretty clear.

First, we are called not to be judgmental but compassionate. We are called to some kind of charitable response. That does not necessarily mean handing out money on the street. It might mean supporting organizations that address poverty or volunteering with them.

Second, we are called to work for a more just society. That means a society where every person has access to the things needed to thrive. For example: decent housing and decent wages, sufficient food, quality health care, social services, and support for families.

If we claim to be Christian, we should be judging policies not so much by how they affect us personally, but by how they affect the most vulnerable.

Jeanette Arnquist is a former Director of the Department of Life, Dignity & Justice for the Diocese of San Bernardino. She is retired and living in Tucson, Arizona where she remains active in social concerns ministries.