Friday, February 02, 2007

At the risk of sounding heartless...

A few days ago, a small story appeared in our local rag concerning an estimate that there were about 744,000 homeless people in the U.S. in 2005. The canvass was done by a homeless advocacy group, so one can expect that any error would be on the high side.

The article was, as I said, a small one, and I turned the page and read on for a few minutes. But you know how some small part of your mind sometimes keeps on working on a problem in the background while your main attention moves on? That's what happened in this case. It suddenly came to me: that's less than 1 percent of the population of the country!

Actually, it's about a quarter of one percent, if you assume a total population of 300 million, which was also in the news recently. At the state level, Nevada had the highest proportion to population, at 0.68 percent. So, no state has even one one-hundredth of its residents living without a roof over their heads.

Now, poverty and mental illness and bad fortune and all the other causes of homelessness are forms of suffering that we as Christians are expected to work hard to alleviate (and we do). Don't get me wrong here. I'm not advocating letting anyone starve or freeze to death on the streets, or jamming the poor into Dickensian workhouses.

What I am asking for is some perspective. Homelessness, by even a favorable estimate, afflicts just a tiny fraction of Americans. Yet often, it seems the only social issue that anyone talks about. When my daughter was in middle school and high school, it seemed that Community Service projects were almost invariably directed at collecting food for the homeless, serving food to the homeless, building Habitat for Humanity homes for the homeless, raising funds for the homeless, and so on and on for the homeless. It was as if no other societal problem had any importance. To give another example: at Sunday Mass, we're led to pray every week for an end to homelessness, but only once a year for an end to abortion on demand (impact: about a million lives lost annually -- not made miserable or uncomfortable or humiliating, but snuffed out).

Yes indeed, it's bad that we have even 0.25 percent of our population living without housing, and we ought to do what we can to reduce that number. But there are other fields in which we're called to labor and give of our treasure, too. And if we're all getting in each other's way trying to "help the homeless", it means that a lot of other worthy causes aren't getting their share of our attention.