On Sept. 24, as the media and political strategists digest and dissect the first-ever papal address to a joint meeting of Congress, Pope Francis will depart from Capitol Hill to bless and break bread with those living on the margins of the nation’s capital. “He will leave the place of power to get down where people are powerless,” says Msgr. John Enzler, president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, which will host the pope. “That’s going to be the real story.”
In addition to an interview in the weeks before the visit, America had a chance to speak with Msgr. Enzler after the pope celebrated Mass in Washington.
Catholic Charities has provided social services to poor and vulnerable residents in the Washington metropolitan area for over 80 years. Guided by the Gospel and Catholic social teaching, the charitable arm of the archdiocese assists individuals and families through a wide range of programs, including housing, shelter and food aid, immigrant and refugee services, employment counseling and adult education, and help for people living with disabilities or addiction.
Pope Francis will have the opportunity to meet many of the men, women and children served by these programs when he visits the group’s D.C. headquarters. He will first go to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, the district’s oldest parish (founded in 1794), where he will bless 250 staff, volunteers and clients. The pope will then bless the smaller chapel located in Catholic Charities’ office next door, before joining another 300 clients from the group’s service network for lunch with St. Maria’s Meals.
UPDATE: Despite some media outlets describing the visit, scheduled immediately after his address to Congress, as Pope Francis turning down or skipping lunch with legislators, this stop as St. Patrick’s and Catholic Charities has been on the papal itinerary since May.
That program, which began almost three years ago, serves dinner to between 250 and 500 people experiencing hardship or homelessness each Wednesday. The city provides the six “low-barrier” shelters run by Catholic Charities with $1.80 per person per night for dinner, and the food is not bad, but the servings are not substantial, according to Msgr. Enzler. Through St. Maria’s, participants receive a warm, home-cooked meal at least once a week, and, says volunteer Kristen Vibbert, “We don’t skimp on our portions.”
Living on the Edge
The need for housing and food assistance in the region is great, though the past year has seen progress in the fight against homelessness. In 2015, 11,623 people in Washington, D.C., and surrounding counties in Maryland and Virginia were homeless, defined as living outside or in emergency and transitional housing. This represented a 2.7 percent decrease from the previous year, according to a report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Since 2011, the region has seen a 31 percent decrease in chronic homelessness, thanks in part to a voucher program for homeless veterans, increased funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the creation of more permanent housing solutions through participation in the national 100,000 Homes Campaign.
The greatest obstacles to ending homelessness in the nation’s capital, as in many cities, are an affordable-housing crisis and inadequate and stagnant wages. These twin issues have led to a disturbing rise in the number of homeless families, even as overall homelessness has decreased. In response, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser is working with the D.C. Council to increase the availability of emergency and private-room housing, and has committed to the admittedly ambitious goals of ending chronic family homelessness by 2017 and making all homelessness “rare, brief and non-recurring” by 2020.
Nationwide, there were 575,424 homeless individuals recorded in 2014, a 2.3 percent decrease from the previous year, according a report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. This trend, however, belies the troubling reality that economic gains since the financial crisis of 2007-08 have not by shared by many low-income people. Despite the falling unemployment rate, the poverty rate has remained steady at 15.8 percent. Since 2007, the number of people living in households “doubled up” with friends and family has increased 67 percent, and there has been a 25 percent increase in households with a severe housing burden (defined as paying more than 50 percent of their income for housing). For those living in or on the cusp of poverty, a single missed paycheck or medical emergency can mean moving to a shelter or the streets.
While some states and cities have taken proactive and creative steps to ease the burdens of housing insecurity—such as Utah, which has drastically cut homelessness through its “housing first” approach—other locales have moved in the opposite direction. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has tracked 187 cities since 2009 and has found significant increases in the number of laws criminalizing the life-sustaining activities of homeless people. Bans on sleeping in public, sitting or lying in public, begging and loitering, and sleeping in vehicles are increasingly common across the country.
Open Doors, Open Hearts
By visiting Catholic Charities, Msgr. Enzler tells America, Pope Francis demonstrates once again where his heart is: not with the powerbrokers, but the poor, “in the barrios in Argentina, and the people in the streets of Rome.” Before he was pope, Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio regularly visited the shantytowns of Buenos Aires, earning himself the title “Bishop of the Slums.” As Bishop of Rome he has opened the Vatican to the city’s homeless: the public restrooms in St. Peter’s Square have been renovated with showers for the homeless, and a 30-bed shelter is under construction on the edge of Vatican City. In March, Pope Francis greeted 150 homeless men and women during a tour of the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums, telling his guests, “This is everyone’s house, and your house.”
Pope Francis has spoken repeatedly and forcefully against the “throwaway culture” that has “forgotten how to weep” for those suffering in the shadows of our globalized capitalist economy. In an address to mark World Environment Day in June 2013, the pope decried the world’s casual disregard for the poor and homeless:
That some homeless people should freeze to death on the street—this doesn’t make news. On the contrary, when the stock market drops 10 points in some cities, it constitutes a tragedy. Someone who dies is not news, but lowering income by 10 points is a tragedy! In this way people are thrown aside as if they were trash.
Msgr. Enzler believes Pope Francis will deliver an equally challenging message to the U.S. Congress, but he suspects the pontiff’s off-the-cuff remarks among the homeless, refugees, immigrants and survivors of domestic abuse he will meet at Catholic Charities may well be the most memorable. He also hopes the pope’s visit will inspire greater involvement among the region’s Catholics in building up “a church that is poor that serves the poor.”
Indeed it already has. The Archdiocese of Washington has asked Catholics and all people of goodwill to welcome the pope by taking the “Walk with Francis” pledge, a commitment to pray, serve or act in the name of justice, peace, human dignity, religious freedom and the common good. By mid-September nearly 40,000 people had signed up, sharing their pledges on social media with the hashtag #WalkwithFrancis.
At Catholic Charities, the hope is that the excitement and interest generated by Francis will outlive the pope’s short U.S. visit. “The best way to get young people to practice their faith is not through sermons of Sunday,” says Msgr. Enzler. “It’s through service. Service will open their hearts so that they might be able to be touched by the Gospel of Jesus. My hope is that the pope will be a catalyst for change.”
During a virtual audience that aired on ABC’s “20/20” on Sept. 4, a homeless teenager from Los Angeles asked the pope why his trip to the United States was so important. “It’s difficult not to be close to the people,” Pope Francis responded. “Instead, when I get close to the people, as I am going to do with you all, I find it easier to understand them and help them on the path of life. It’s because of this that this trip is so important, to make me close to your path and history.” For many of the people served by Catholic Charities, that path has been difficult, that history scarred by poverty, violence or addiction. But it is there that we find the church Pope Francis seeks to build, “a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets” (“Evangelii Gaudium,” No. 49).