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Two Approaches to Catholicism, One Good Policy for the Poor

by Anthony Stasi, Ph.D candidate at Catholic University of AmericaHousing First is a public policy approach to housing the homeless that has produced great results at the federal level, though some critics argue that it is a give-away program that fails to reward personal responsibility. Truthfully, it is a give-away program, yet it has worked dramatically well.

Housing First focuses on finding adequate housing for people before they are asked to address their drug addiction, mental illness, or whatever disadvantages or afflictions they may have.  It recognizes that all other challenges are made worse when a person is homeless and all solutions are made more likely to succeed when a person has a home. As a program that aims to house our most vulnerable, it seems to fit perfectly with Catholic social teaching, but it may not be embraced by all Catholics.

As a student at three Catholic universities and a former political candidate, I learned that the Catholic population often divides into two distinct camps. There are Catholics who see their faith as a disciplinary path to self-fulfillment and there are those who embrace an empathetic belief system focused on the common good. Catholicism may encompass both of these aspects, but many times individual Catholics gravitate to only one. Certain public policy efforts, such as Housing First, ought to appeal to both types.


I grew up in the ethnic neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens, where it was heavily Italian, Irish, Hispanic, and certainly Catholic. We were taught that our Catholic values would lead to success in life—being well educated, building families, and having successful careers. All of this was true. This was the disciplinary aspect of my faith, it was introspective, and I loved it. My Catholic understanding expanded later in life, as community service began to play a bigger role in my life, thanks in large part to the Jesuits at Fordham University. Before college, however, I had never even heard of Catholic social teaching. Few people with whom I was raised could tell you what it is either.

One does not need to be well versed in Catholic social teaching to appreciate a program like Housing First. I have seen homelessness close up. Working as a senior policy analyst at a government agency in this field, I understand that results matter. The poor do not have time to wait for government to get it right. Government has to get it ‘right now.’ Those of us Catholics who see ourselves as realists and pragmatists need to realize that this policy works.

New York City and Los Angeles are major problem areas for chronic homelessness. Philip Mangano, the Director of the Interagency Council on Homeless under President George W. Bush, embraced this idea and agreed to test drive it in San Francisco. Mangano, a devout Catholic, wanted to try this in the city of his favorite saint. San Francisco was also a city that would be more than willing to take a progressive step such as this. The policy caught on, and has been embraced by the Obama administration.  The fact that both conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, have championed this approach shows that it really does produce results and improve people’s lives.

In an assessment report by leading homeless scholar Dennis Culhane (focusing on New York City), the quality of one’s housing has a causal relationship with a person’s health. Housed people tend to be more compliant with their prescribed medication. They tend to utilize drug clinics with more regularity. This is especially true for people living with AIDS and HIV. “Housing has served as a critical element of systems of health care and HIV prevention for persons with HIV/AIDS in the NYC EMSA (Emergency Medical Services Authority),” writes Culhane. “As a national, federally-funded examination on HIV/AIDS and homelessness concludes, housing for homeless people should be funded as a preventive health measure.”

The Obama administration has made veterans’ homelessness a priority and has delivered good results. The last year saw homelessness among veterans drop by 12 percent. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) have continued the VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) voucher program. This program grew out of Housing First, and it provides homeless veterans with vouchers to find housing. It is a give-away program, and it works.

As Catholics from working and middle class families, we find ourselves landing in established society due to our values, hard work, and God’s good grace. Many Catholics are either veterans or the children of veterans. Policies such as this program should appeal to Catholics on all fronts.

We know as Catholics that the poor need to be a priority in public policy. We also know as realists that good government exercises fiscal responsibility. The chronic homeless cost cities a great deal of money. Culhane and other researchers focused on various cities over select periods of time. In 1998, researchers followed 15 homeless people in the city of San Diego. They measured how often these people used government emergency services while living on the street. The cost to San Diego was a very expensive $133,333 per person. Boston, between 1999 and 2003, paid an average of $27,563 for each person living on their streets. Minneapolis between 1985 and 2005 paid out an average of $112,967 per person. Housing our fellow citizens may serve the common good, but it also saves money.

Protecting the most vulnerable is at the center of Catholic social teaching. While Catholics can be liberal or conservative in their approach to public policy, all of us should embrace effective public policy. Effective policy helps all of us, however, and both charity and utility can live together in certain policy initiatives. Housing first is one such policy.

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Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good is a lay Catholic organization that promotes public policies and effective programs that enhance the inherent dignity of all, especially the poor and most vulnerable. Our work is inspired by Gospel values and the rich history of Catholic social teaching as they inform pressing moral issues of our time. We accomplish these goals through public policy analysis and advocacy, strategic media outreach, and engaging citizens in the service of the common good.

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