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Hungering for Justice: Homelessness and hunger in Vermont

The Gospel clearly states where Jesus was born – in Bethlehem in a hastily improvised shelter. A place where animals were kept: a stable, in fact. Yet that night, that humble space became the birthplace of the King of Kings. After the visits from the shepherds and the Magi, Joseph was forewarned, in a dream, of Herod's plan to kill the child. He was instructed to flee Bethlehem with the child and his mother to Egypt, where they remained for about two years.

As a carpenter Joseph expected to be able to find work in Nazareth. But, relocating a family then was probably no more comfortable or secure than it is for families today. No doubt Mary and Joseph experienced a period of uncertainty with homelessness and hunger.

Homelessness and hunger continue to plague society. Here, in Vermont, the needs of the poor and working poor have become commonplace. Some communities have worked tirelessly to cope and address these issues while others are working to catch up. Some resist efforts to address the fact that people are without basic human needs: shelter, food and warmth.

First the good news: Vermont Catholic Charities, Inc. is actively engaged in assisting the homeless and those who seek emergency aid, along with providing counseling for individuals and families. In many cases such counseling is an essential component of enabling someone to overcome the severe adversity they are confronting.

Burlington area residents have organized and operated the Committee on Temporary Shelter for years. That has required a great deal of collaboration on the part of numerous people. It has required the support of the city government. And it has required financial support that residents have willingly given. Part of the success of the COTS program is a function of the size of the Burlington area population and the social conscience that the Queen City community exhibits.

Other Vermont towns have implemented services on a smaller scale while relying on social service agencies to arrange lodging for the homeless at local motels.

Sadly, some communities have resisted efforts to address the problem out of complacency or fear that the homeless may cause an adverse impact on businesses in town, property values, public safety, etc.

The reality is that Vermont, naturally beautiful as it is, can be dangerously cold. With average winter temperatures in the low 20s and snowfall totaling 120 inches, we can be certain that people unable to stay warm and dry would succumb to these life-threatening conditions.

The issue of hunger is being addressed by many religious and secular organizations. Numerous churches operate their own food shelves and collaborate with other churches or agencies to maintain a food shelf in the community. This is supplemented by efforts of such agencies as the Vermont Food Bank and regional community action and anti-poverty agencies funded by state or federal support.

In some towns, there are soup kitchens and hot meal programs operated by one church or another. In St Johnsbury, a "community meal" is provided three days per week on a rotating basis at three different churches. St. John the Evangelist supplements that with a once a month community soup, bread and fruit meal, of course topped off with desserts. (Soup and desserts are courtesy of generous and talented cooks in the parish.) And the Sunday morning coffee hour after Masses is open to the broader community.

The St. Johnsbury community has launched a temporary homeless shelter during the winter months. The shelter operates at a facility supported by the hospital; it is also supported with professional and volunteer staff from Northeast Kingdom Community Action. Included in the program is a counselor who will offer assistance to clients to help them find permanent housing and develop plans to emerge from homelessness.

In this Year of Mercy, the Catholic community needs to prayerfully examine its response to the problems of homelessness and hunger. Parishes and individual Catholics would do well to expand their response. Stepping up efforts to support the local food shelf is an excellent starting point. Efforts to support a soup kitchen, community meal or a homeless shelter are other important steps. It would be important for all of us, individually and as the Church, to stretch to see how much we really can help. But merely wishing the hungry and homeless well is not acceptable. (See Jas 3:15-16.)

Deacon Pete Gummere, M.S., M.A. lives in St. Johnsbury and serves at Corpus Christi Parish. He is a bioethicist and an adjunct faculty member at Pontifical College Josephinum, where he teaches courses in medical morality and moral theology in the Josephinum Diaconate Institute.

 
Last modified onWednesday, 27 July 2016 15:18
Deacon Pete Gummere, M.S., M.A

Deacon Pete Gummere, director of the Permanent Diaconate for the Diocese of Burlington, serves at Corpus Christi Parish, St. Johnsbury. He is a bioethicist and an adjunct faculty member at Josephinum Diaconate Institute where he teaches courses in medical morality and moral theology.

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