Wake-up call: every person has inherent dignity

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By Barb Arland-Fye
Editorial

Responding to a U.S. Supreme Court decision June 28 that, in essence, criminalizes homelessness, Archbishop Borys Gudziak called us to recognize the inherent dignity of every person, especially those experiencing homelessness. “Policies that criminalize homelessness are a direct contradiction of our call to shelter those experiencing homelessness and care for those in need,” Archbishop Gudziak said in a statement on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). He chairs the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

SCOTUSblog reported on its website that the Supreme Court “upheld ordinances in a southwest Oregon city that prohibit people who are homeless from using blankets, pillows, or cardboard boxes for protection from the elements while sleeping within the city limits. By a vote of 6-3, the justices agreed with the city, Grants Pass, that the ordinances simply bar camping on public property by everyone and do not violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment” (https://tinyurl.com/4dcbr36r).

“Having to sleep in public with a blanket is the definition of being homeless,” Archbishop Gudziak said in his statement. “Ticketing and arresting people for it is a counterproductive approach to the problem of homelessness. Instead of punishing the most vulnerable among us, government should help provide shelter and economic and social programs that uphold and enhance the dignity of homeless persons. Such action would offer real opportunities for a better life and to remedy the deeper causes of homelessness.”

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On its website, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa said “many cities and towns have ordinances that criminalize being homeless, including sleeping in public.” The ACLU identified Ankeny, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Des Moines, Dubuque and Iowa City as having problematic ordinances. Davenport’s ordinance states: “No person shall sleep or simulate sleep on any park fixture or furniture, including but not limited to picnic tables or benches, at any time. No person shall sleep or simulate sleep anywhere within a park from midnight to 6:00 a.m.”

The Supreme Court’s decision serves as a wake-up call for all of us who profess faith in Jesus Christ to get serious about addressing the affordable housing crisis in our state and across the nation. Granted, the housing crisis is akin to a field overgrown with weeds. Which ones do we tackle first?

The USCCB, in its amicus curiae brief filed prior to the Supreme Court ruling, recognized that “views on appropriate policy responses to homelessness may vary and that people of good will may disagree on particular policy choices. But imposing criminal penalties for being homeless without access to shelter is not merely a policy choice…”

We ought to exercise the two feet of social action, as the late Msgr. Marvin Mottet described the complementary tasks of charity and systemic change. Here are some ideas, adapted from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and weareiowa.com:

  • Ask the Biden Administration and Congress to invest in affordable housing at the scale necessary to end and prevent homelessness. Fund the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF).
  • Advocate for funding for universal rental assistance for the lowest-income households.
  • Ask Congress (congress.gov) to support the bipartisan “Evictions Crisis Act” to create a permanent emergency rental assistance program for low-income households facing an unexpected economic shock.
  • Advocate for additional Section 8 vouchers (government rent assistance) for homeless individuals and families, domestic violence survivors, and people with disabilities.
  • Ask Congress to decriminalize homelessness by local governments.
  • Ask our state legislators (legis.iowa.gov/legislators) to enact a Homeless Bill of Rights.
  • Ask our city/county representatives to increase the availability of affordable housing while also funding homeless services, such as emergency shelters, as needed.
  • Advocate for street homeless outreach teams in our communities. Davenport-based Humility Homes and Services Inc. (humilityhomes.org) serves as a model of this effort.
  • Encourage your community’s public library to allow people without homes free access to computers and the internet to set up an email account to look for social services, search for jobs and connect with the outside world.
  • Donate to your local food pantry, meal site or food bank (foodbankiowa.org, riverbendfoodbank.org).
  • Volunteer at a food pantry, meal site or foodbank.

In its amicus curiae brief, the USCCB quoted Pope Francis, who reminds us: “The Son of God came into this world as a homeless person. The Son of God knew what it was to start life without a roof over his head…. And those of us who have a home, a roof over our heads, would … do well to ask: Why do these, our brothers and sisters, have no place to live? Why are these brothers and sisters of ours homeless?”

Barb Arland-Fye, Editor
arland-fye@davenportdiocese.org


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