As Christmas approaches, the life of Jesus reminds many of the plight of people facing homelessness. He appeared first as an infant born in a stable, his crib a manger, or animal trough. And as an adult he became an itinerant teacher and preacher, relying on friends or supporters to shelter him as he went about his ministry.
In 2013 a bronze sculpture called Homeless Jesus or Jesus the Homeless was installed at the University of Toronto. It depicts him lying on a park bench, covered with a blanket, as a homeless person might be. The sculptor, Timothy Schmalz, calls his works “visual prayers.” Copies have now been installed in locations around the United States and abroad.
Whether Jesus would qualify for some modern-day definition of a homeless person need not be the point. His ministry embraced poor people, including those without homes, and he taught the dignity and worth of each individual.
One source of gratitude this Christmas might be that homelessness in the U.S. continues to diminish. In 2009, near the end of the Great Recession, about 630,000 people were homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. By 2018 that number had shrunk to a little more than 550,000.
But any number is still too high. Some places, such as Houston, have made great progress. That city has cut its homeless population by more than half since 2011. But in many other places the number of those living on the streets stubbornly keeps growing.
Houston has relied on an approach called “housing first” that sees stable long-term housing as the most important early step, even before the reasons behind homelessness can be addressed. But in other locations this strategy has been less effective.
Part of the reason may be that homelessness defies simple explanations or causes. Drug and alcohol abuse are often factors, as well as mental illness.
But some homeless people are unemployable due to physical disabilities. Some hold jobs but can’t afford high-priced local housing. Others may be escaping from abusive situations in their former homes.
Recently the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear arguments asking to overturn an appeals court ruling on homeless people. That ruling stated that homeless people can’t be removed from the street unless proper housing for them is provided.
“The government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” wrote one of the three judges for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The very condition of homelessness itself is not a crime. Nor does removing homeless people from public view alone solve the problem.
In Minneapolis a homeless encampment along a major commuting highway into the city became an unsightly reminder of the city’s problem.
“Everyone going downtown saw [the camp] day after day after day and heard the stories,” says Patina Park, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. “It made it a real issue rather than just another homeless report with statistics.”
Action followed. In recent days Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced that a broad public-private partnership had raised nearly $5 million to combat homelessness, including increased shelter capacity across the state. The plan is to eventually double that amount.
“Homelessness is solvable,” Governor Walz says. “It is a math problem, not a character problem. It is a math problem, and we are prepared to solve that problem.”
Each city may find that it needs to customize its approach to homelessness to find what works for it. An approach based on the compassion Jesus exemplified, twinned with the firm conviction that the problem is solvable, can lead to success.