After two years of encountering men, women, and children living on the streets of Denver, Colorado, I’ve come to ask myself many questions about how I can serve them best in light of the Gospel, Tradition, and right reason. The complexity of people’s lives and the reason for their plight make the application of overarching principles very difficult – difficult, though necessary. No human situation is a simple one. However, the complexity of daily life should not intimidate Catholics, preventing them from critiquing and applying solutions to the world around them.
We could say that homelessness, as it occurs in the United States, manifests a uniquely first world challenge. Its causes relate to material poverty, although cannot be entirely attributed to it. Indeed, we have encountered some who live on the streets despite a living-wage and the capacity to attain a home. For me, the particularity of homelessness in Denver contrasted starkly with the poverty I witnessed in the shanty-towns of Lima, Peru. There, material poverty and the potential for social mobility often determined one’s level of housing and their life-style. In Denver, we discovered how resources abounded – housing, food access, social services – yet, many remained ignorant or indifferent to utilizing these resources to achieve a higher standard of life. As Blessed Mother Teresa observed during her visit to the United States, there exists a deeper poverty, a human poverty that afflicts residents of even the most prosperous US cities.
The questions surrounding homelessness are numerous. But, with this brief article, I hoped to begin by addressing two questions about human work as it relates to homelessness. First, can someone rightfully opt not to work? An assumption lies in this first question, which is that homelessness naturally means that someone does not work. That is not the case, although it often is. ((According to a study by Denver’ Road Home, 67% of the homeless population in the Denver metro region does not work.)) For that reason, I’ve related it in such a way. Second, if we can provide a case for the necessity of work, how can we present it in a compelling way so that someone inevitably works?
According to Genesis, work has accompanied humanity from the very beginning. God called man and woman to “subdue” the earth through their effort. In doing so, they exercised their humanity, beings created in the image and likeness of God. Creation, while possessing a dignity that corresponds to its origin in the Creator, remained expectant of the realization of man through completion of God’s plan for the world. As Saint John Paul II wrote in his encyclical, Laborens Exercens, “Man is the image of God partly through the mandate received from his Creator to subdue, to dominate, the earth. In carrying out this mandate, man, every human being, reflects the very action of the Creator of the universe.” ((John Paul II, Laborens Exercens, encyclical on human work, September 1981, 4.)) For this reason, not working is an offense again God and his design for mankind.
Simultaneously, in fulfilling God’s intention for man through work, each person marks a path of authentic human realization. Work does not contradict man’s dignity, but fulfills it. Previous to the fall, man and woman worked without suffering. “Toil,” which most accompany with their own experience, only accompanied them after their initial disobedience to God. “And yet, in spite of all this toil-perhaps, in a sense, because of it-work is a good thing for man…Work is a good thing for man-a good thing for his humanity-because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being’(italics my own).” ((Laborens Exercens, 9.)) In cultivating the earth through his craft, creating culture, man cultivates his very being through the exercise of good habits that, when exercised according to God’s Plan, perfect him.
Man has another duty to work. In addition to responding to the Creator’s call and his own need for perfecting himself, the community relies upon the work of each individual for the common good. The nucleus of society is the family. The consequence of man’s fruitfulness implies the responsibility to provide sustenance for his family’s survival, and men and women achieve this sustenance through work. Beyond the immediate needs of their family, all people have responsibility to provide, according to their concrete possibilities and circumstances, to the greater good of society as a whole. It is simple mathematics. We all benefit from participating in the human community – whether it is through food transport, medicine, schooling, education – and as a consequence, must offer our fair share in order for the community to subsist.
Duty to God, to oneself, and to others, these are legitimate reasons to work, but are they compelling? Our experience has shown otherwise. What if someone doesn’t believe in God? How about those who have been shunned by their families and think society is corrupt? As we’ve learned, many choose not to work out for fear of losing their disability benefits (maximum of $710/month for an individual with the possibility of an additional state subsidy).
Perhaps the challenge lies in correcting a wrong conception of work, by focusing solely on what Saint John Paul II identified as its “objective value.” We often categorize a given profession solely by its utility within society. Indeed, this does correspond to reality to a point as a salary reflects in a free market economy. However, in addition to work’s objective value, it has inherent “subjective” value because of the subject working, each human person. For that reason, all work, regardless of its objective nature, has a dignity that corresponds to man, created in God’s image and likeness.
Our former Pontiff eloquently makes this distinction in the following way: “As a person, man is therefore the subject of work. As a person he works, he performs various actions belonging to the work process; independently of their objective content, these actions must all serve to realize his humanity, to fulfill the calling to be a person that is his by reason of his very humanity.” ((Laborens Exercens, 6.)) He goes on saying, “Such a concept practically does away with the very basis of the ancient differentiation of people into classes according to the kind of work done. This does not mean that, from the objective point of view, human work cannot and must not be rated and qualified in any way. It only means that the primary basis of the value of work is man himself, who is its subject.” ((Laborens Exercens, 6.))
The question about work, then, is intertwined with the question about the dignity of the human person. Perhaps, this is the key. Could we contend that our primary goal should not consist in convincing people to work, but rather in convincing them of their inherent dignity and worth? Rather than make up stories about the satisfaction of a living wage or the immorality of being a free-loader, we can think of ways to affectively and effectively show homeless men and women that they are children of God, called by their Creator to assume the great task of subduing the earth, cultivating themselves, and contributing the advancement of humanity; that they possess irreplaceable talents needed for establishment of the kingdom of God? The practical possibilities opened to complete this end are endless, and reach beyond the scope of this brief reflection.
Nonetheless, what we can conclude is this: While work may be the direct consequence of our campaign, our most effective action to achieve that end may first consist in simply opening people’s eyes to who they are.
© 2013 – Adam Ureneck para el Centro de Estudios Católicos – CEC