Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Do we Americans care more about stray animals than homeless people?

When we did the homeless count this year in Pasadena, I noticed that seven homeless people were sleeping in front of the posh SPCA Animal Shelter near Central Park. It seemed ironic that animals were being sheltered in a warm, safe place while human beings were out in the cold. What’s wrong with this picture?
During a recent meeting of my interfaith spiritual practice group, we talked about how people are more likely to take in stray animals than stray people. You often hear heart-warming stories of families who’ve provided a home for dogs or cats that have been abused, or are starving. Seldom do we hear stories of Americans opening their homes to homeless people.
My wife and I are the exception: we took in a stray kitten and homeless person, and we feel very fortunate and blessed to have done so. The kitten turned out to be an excellent mouser (we call her Dr Pepper) and she keeps our yard and house mouse-free. The homeless man who now resides with us was sleeping in his car and almost died of pneumonia two years ago. We invited him to recuperate and he now lives in our back house. He is an excellent handyman and does odd jobs for us (for which we pay him). He also takes care of our home when we travel. Having him as our guest is a win-win. 
History shows that Americans are more inclined to show compassion to animals than to people, even children. Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals were founded before Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. John Myers explains how organized child protection began in the United States:

Organized child protection emerged from the rescue in 1874 of nine-year-old Mary Ellen Wilson, who lived with her guardians in one of New York City's worst tenements, Hell's Kitchen. Mary Ellen was routinely beaten and neglected. A religious missionary to the poor named Etta Wheeler learned of the child's plight and determined to rescue her. Wheeler consulted the police, but they declined to investigate. Next, Wheeler sought assistance from child helping charities, but they lacked authority to intervene in the family. At that time, of course, there was no such thing as child protective services, and the juvenile court did not come into existence for a quarter century. Eventually, Wheeler sought advice from Henry Bergh, the influential founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Bergh asked his lawyer, Elbridge Gerry, to find a legal mechanism to rescue the child. Gerry employed a variant of the writ of habeas corpus to remove Mary Ellen from her guardians. 12 Following the rescue of Mary Ellen, animal protection advocate Henry Bergh and his attorney Elbridge Gerry lamented the fact that no government agency or nongovernmental organization was responsible for child protection. Bergh and Gerry decided to create a nongovernmental charitable society devoted to child protection, and thus was born the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC), the world's first entity devoted entirely to child protection. Gerry became president of NYSPCC and served in that capacity into the twentieth century. (

I am pleased that Pasadena is a city where many care deeply about homeless people as well as stray pets. Once a year hundreds of volunteers go around the city of Pasadena and survey  those who living on the streets. The purpose of the survey is to identify the needs of the unhoused so we can apply for funds and provide needed services. Our city has excellent homeless services compared to many neighboring cities, and our homeless population has declined as a result of policies like Housing First, but there are still far too many people on the street. Here are some statistics:

 According to The City of Pasadena 2012 Homeless Count, on a given night there are more than 900 homeless adults and children who are either sleeping on the streets or in a residential program that serves homeless persons;

According to 2010 U.S. Census data, there are more than 21,000 adults and children that make up nearly 8,000 households that have an annual income of $15,000 or less (The Network considers these households to be the-most-at-risk-to-homelessness).

Also, according to 2010 U.S. Census, approximately 19,000 14 percent of Pasadena residents were in poverty. Nineteen percent of related children under 18 were below the poverty level, compared with 13 percent of people 65 years old and over. Thirteen percent of all families and 23 percent of families with a female householder and no husband present had incomes below the poverty level.

Poverty is a stark and troubling reality in America that politicians seldom mention, and most Americans are in denial about. The wealthy keep getting wealthier, and their homes keep getting bigger, while the poor keep getting poorer and many are homeless. As homeless populations increased, the average size of American homes has doubled in the last 50 years. Most homeowners have far more space than they need. When we open our hearts, and our homes, to the poor, we could not only relieve their plight, we also save our souls and the soul of our city.
Jesus makes it clear in his parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man that helping the poor is not simply an option, it is a requirement if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven (in this life and in the life to come). The Book of Acts makes it clear that one of the top priorities of a truly Christian community is to end poverty and homelessness. (The other priority is to provide free health care to all.) The early Christian community is described as a place where “there were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, and lay them at the apostles' feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.” In Act 4:34 it defines "believers" by their actions, not by their theological beliefs: "All those who had believed were together and had all things in common;  and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.” Acts 2:45.

Ending poverty was not merely an ideal for early Christians, it was a clear demonstration of their living faith. We need to take to heart their example. We can end homelessness and poverty in America. Programs like Housing First show that ending chronic homelessness is not only doable, it is cost effective. We are a rich nation, and Pasadena is becoming an increasingly rich city We who have means have a moral obligation to put our faith into practice and end homelessness. Si, se puede! 

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