Written by: Pam Matambanadzo, National Board Member and Chair of the Multicultural and Diversity Committee
In his homily on Sunday, Fr. Jim Prehn, S.J. from Loyola University Chicago (a visiting priest at Saint Mary of the Lake/Our Lady of Lourdes Chicago) reminded us that we are all called and that we should look to the blessed Mother on what to do when called. He continued to say that all too often as Christians we tend to take the approach of tourists: viewing things from a safe distance; taking notes before moving onto the next thing. We tend to seek what is comfortable.
He beckoned us to view our calling as would a pilgrim, whereby we do not know what is to come, but rather we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us. Tourists tend to set agendas on what sites to visit and how long they will be there – everything is predictable. Pilgrimage, on the other hand, beckons us to a journey of spiritual focus that is sometimes uncomfortable. How are we truly to encounter the suffering Christ if we turn away from the challenges that come with speaking for the vulnerable?
As many of you may know, January is Poverty Awareness Month, and this year the Voice of the Poor Committee is inviting all Vincentians to journey with us as we reflect and discern our role in the plight of those experiencing Homelessness, or those simply unhoused in one form or another. Each week we will invite a fellow Vincentian to share with us how their community is tackling the challenges they encounter.
We will also be inviting clergy from different parts of the country to help us as we reflect. What is Catholic Social Teaching? Is advocating for the vulnerable part and parcel of living out one’s gospel values? The U.S. Catholic Bishops say, “We are called to shape a constituency of conscience, measuring every policy by how it touches the least, the lost, and the left-out among us.”
The Voice of the Poor Committee is working on updating our Position Statement on Homelessness. The current version was approved by the National Council on August 31, 2007. Please take time to review the statement along with all the others. Consider reaching out to your regional VOP Representative for more information on how to become more informed and active as we strive to go beyond the charity of feeding the poor to also seek justice for them and defend the life and dignity of neighbors living in poverty.
It is our pilgrimage – together we can make a difference.
According to Poverty USA, more than 38 million people in the United States currently live in poverty.
The month of January is dedicated to bringing awareness to this crucial issue that is at the forefront of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s mission. January is Poverty Awareness Month.
Who Lives in Poverty?
Individuals and families that earn less than the Federal Government’s poverty threshold are considered to be living in poverty. There are two main classifications of poverty:
- Absolute Poverty: When a household income is below the poverty threshold making it impossible for the individual or family to meet their basic needs including food, housing, safe drinking water, education, healthcare, etc. For those living in absolute poverty, their situation remains unchanged no matter the economic state of where they live.
- Relative Poverty: The condition in which people are deprived of the minimum amount of income needed in order to maintain the average of standard living in their community. Those that fall in this category have money, but not enough to “keep up with the Joneses.” This type of poverty can change with economic growth in the country. This category, while it may not seem as extreme as absolute poverty, can still be permanent.
Poverty can also be broken into two groups called “Generational Poverty” and “Situational Poverty.”
- Generational Poverty: A family that has lived in poverty for at least two generations. Those experiencing generational poverty often deal with hopelessness, tend to focus on survival over planning, have different values and patterns than those who have not grown up in poverty.
- Situational Poverty: A individual or family’s income and support is decreased due to a specific change – job loss, divorce, death, etc. Those coping with situational poverty tend to remain hopeful, considering it a temporary setback.
The COVID-19 Pandemic and Poverty in the U.S.
In the years leading up to 2020, poverty had gradually been declining in the United States. In 2019, the poverty rate was at 10.5%, the lowest since 1959. Then, COVID hit.
According to Human Rights Watch, since the start of the pandemic, 74.7 million people have lost work, forcing them to dip into savings, depleting individual reserves.
Census Bureau data shows how households with different incomes are coping with the pandemic and that low-income households are disproportionally struggling for their social and economic needs to be met. Among households with incomes below $35,000, 47% of adults report being behind on housing payments, and 25% say they struggle to put food on the table.
While stimulus checks, and tax credits have offered a little help over the past two years, the problem persists.
SVdP Is Here to Help
Our mission is: “A network of friends, inspired by Gospel values, growing in holiness and building a more just world through personal relationships with and service to people in need.”
Vincentians around the world have dedicated themselves to offering our suffering brothers and sisters a hand up in their time of need. Through a combination of spiritual and material aid, we seek to help those suffering from poverty. While we do assist with food and rental assistance – the things you picture those living in poverty to be most desperate for – SVdP’s goal is to help make a “systemic change.”
Systemic Change is a key facet of the Society’s work to end poverty. It goes beyond addressing immediate needs and instead, partners with the poor to identify the root causes of their poverty and remove the barriers that keep people impoverished.
“The money or assistance in-kind that we give to those who are poor will not last long. We must aspire to a more complete and longer lasting benefit: study their abilities … and help them get work to help them out of their difficulties.” – Blessed Rosalie Rendu
To learn more about how SVdP helps those living in poverty, click to visit our website.
Resources for Poverty Awareness Month
On behalf of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and those we serve, SVdP National President Ralph Middlecamp recently sent a letter to Congress, urging Senators and Representatives to prioritize programs and policies that ensure poor and vulnerable families have access to stable housing, health care, and access to economic opportunity.
To learn more about how you can contact your own elected officials about important issues like this, please sign up for our Voter Voice program.
After five years of driving through my neighborhood, I thought I knew it pretty well. But when my wife worked briefly for the U.S. Census, she would point out small shops I had never realized were nearby. She could show me the home with an insane number of people living in it, and which were rentals or owned residences. The neighborhood took on a completely different perspective because she had walked the streets instead of driving while focused on traffic lights, bikes, and pedestrians.
This, my friends, is why the Society conducts Home Visits.
During the pandemic period, many Conferences adjusted to not visiting homes with counter-top services and phone interviews. Most Vincentians will quickly tell you that they miss the stronger relationship of a true visit in someone’s home or even visiting with them in a nearby public place. You see different things, and people often share a bit more not only about their specific problem, but also about their family and their life. There is understanding and empathy, not just a transaction.
It is also difficult to understand poverty until you at least see it, if not experience it yourself. In many ”rich” neighborhoods, we drive by and see the opulent lawns and large homes, assuming easily that everyone in that neighborhood must be wealthy. If you spent real time there, however, you would see that so many neighbors bought much more house than they could afford. The homes are often empty of furniture and the owners have trouble paying their bills. They tried to buy status through their house or their fancy car. The neighborhood’s true millionaires often have the used car and a modest home, but also money in the bank and a lot less stress.
Likewise, people in poverty live in or around these homes. They may have service jobs for the wealthy, or they operate the small businesses sprinkled around the opulent neighborhoods. They are often the invisible underclass that keeps our economy going, the working but underemployed families that we encounter in our Vincentian service.
During the past year we changed our service delivery as needed to be safe and legal. It was not usually our choice, but we did this because of our love for those we serve. We did not want to deny them whatever we could bring to demonstrate our, and God’s, love in these tough times.
We have all heard about not understanding someone until you walk a mile in their shoes. As Vincentians, we know that we don’t understand someone until we at least walk through their neighborhood. As Springtime comes, and pandemic restrictions slowly lift, let’s take that walk. Let’s get to know our neighborhoods, and our neighbors, once again as we venture together out of the darkness.
Yours in Christ,