Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 1453, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

St. Anthony Parish Vincentians focus on housing

by Michael Cain, for the Inland Register

(From the May 19, 2016 edition of the Inland Register)

The loss of even basic housing creates a real risk of permanent poverty. (IR photo courtesy of Susan Cain)

The informal motto of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is ďNo form of charity is unknown to us.Ē

While the members of the Societyís St. Anthony Conference in Spokane consider that both an invitation to follow the Spirit wherever he leads and a challenge to meet the needs of the poor whatever they are, we nonetheless focus primarily on helping our disadvantaged neighbors remain in housing. We do this by helping with rent and mortgage, Avista and other utilities, plus food and household cleaning and personal hygiene supplies.

Weíre often asked why we think keeping people housed is so important. There are a number of reasons, but itís mainly because once you lose your housing, your situation becomes infinitely more complicated, and helping you becomes much more difficult.

This insight is the basis of Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmondís new book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. According to Desmond, whose study of the poor in Milwaukee earned him a MacArthur ďgeniusĒ award, eviction is not merely a feature of poverty, but rather the leading cause of it. We agree.

Losing your home thrusts unspeakable chaos into your life. Your reputation and self-esteem are destroyed. Relationships are shattered. Belongings that may have taken a lifetime to gather, represent significant investment, or be imbued with sentimental value, are lost forever. And thatís just the start.

Housing options for the newly homeless are limited, at least initially, to shelters or, worse, the street itself, as temporary housing such as motels is very expensive and much less fiscally efficient than conventional housing. Because temporary housing is so costly, itís usually out of reach for someone who canít pay his rent to begin with.

In shelters or on the street, just managing your few possessions becomes a full-time, all-consuming effort. This is just one of the time-wasting dimensions of homelessness that keeps its victims from rebuilding their lives. Add to that keeping oneself and oneís clothes clean, finding food, staying out of the elements, sleeping safely, avoiding victimization by criminals and other dangerous people, to say nothing of finding housing.

Homelessness is often followed quickly by marked health decline. Personal hygiene becomes a major challenge: Itís hard to stay clean living on the street or even in the best shelter, and one becomes subject to every illness passing through the community. Thanks to modern psychology we now appreciate the devastating impact stress alone has on the body Ė sleep loss, immune system decline, inability to eat, eventually even the onset of trauma-induced mental illness. Indeed, itís hard to imagine any experience more stressful than losing your home.

Finding a job while living on the street becomes almost impossible: Small but vital things like receiving mail and phone messages are difficult, and itís hard to hold on to and maintain clothing worthy of a job interview. Imagine looking for a job with your self-confidence shattered, having to stand in line for every phone call (assuming you had access to a phone), and awaiting the specter of your desperate situation to rear its ugly head in every interview.

Itís hard to find the resources that might help, to qualify for them once you find them, and then to stay in touch with social service providers trying to supply them.

The longer you remain homeless, the more life becomes like an airplane in a tailspin: all the features of poverty intensify, become more destructive, more inculcated, more irremediable, and push you further from return to stability. For most, at some point extreme poverty becomes permanent and irreversible.

This list assumes the single homeless person. Now imagine these factors multiplied by a family. The horror is readily evident and needs no elaboration.

The ultimate spiritual and existential result of becoming homeless is the complete devastation of a human being, the virtual destruction of a human life.

Once youíre homeless and subject to these overwhelming obstacles, helping you is immeasurably more difficult for social service providers and, by extension, society. Instead of helping with a few hundred dollars for rent, the community must now somehow provide for your every single need, from housing, to food, to healthcare, to the restoration, somehow, of every aspect of your life.

Besides being expensive monetarily, such an undertaking involves enormous, ongoing, redundant, wasteful, and, indeed, sometimes literally endless, human effort. St. Vincent de Paul famously said, ďCharity must be organized, and well organized to be effective.Ē Homelessness represents the diametrical opposite of this ideal.

Finally, many resources are available in our community for those already suffering homelessness. Ironically, resources for the prevention of homelessness are few and far between.

Losing your housing puts you at risk of permanent poverty. The St. Anthony Vincentians think preventing such catastrophe in the lives of our neighbors is a goal worth pursuing.

(Michael Cain is the president of the St. Anthony Conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. For nine years he worked with the homeless as the assistant director of the House of Charity.)

(For more information about the work of the Vincentians, contact parish St. Vincent de Paul conferences, or email Spokane District Council president Paul Machtolf: Donations can be made directly to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Spokane District Council, P.O. Box 2906, Spokane, WA 99220, or to the individual parish Conferences. Additional information is available on their web site:

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