“The poor will always be with you” (Deut. 15:11). Many of us are familiar with this verse, and many are also quick to quote it. But what about this passage just a few verses earlier: “There shall be no poor among you, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today” (Deut. 15:4-5). This message, which can be found in Proverbs and Psalms as well, seems to be forgotten and ignored. Why? Maybe because it’s easy to forget. Maybe “the poor will always be with you” is easier to remember. Maybe it’s an excuse. Maybe ignorance is bliss.
Five years ago, I found myself on a path I never imagined I would travel. Though I had other plans for my life, I could not ignore the fundamental truth that I am my brother’s keeper, my sister’s keeper. I could not ignore the call to do what is within my power to improve the lives of others. And now, here I am, working and walking with men and women experiencing homelessness. When I began this journey, I thought seeing and being with this vulnerable population was enough. It was not until I saw the work of fabulous organizations like Miriam’s Kitchen and Pathways to Housing that I learned that to be our brother’s keeper and to fully respect each person’s dignity, we not only ought to “feed the hungry and clothe the naked,” we ought to guide them home. Forget “the poor will always be with you,” because ending chronic homelessness is possible. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve seen individuals who are chronically ill—fighting addictions, illness, and terrible environments—yet are able to miraculously find a road to recovery after simply being given an apartment of their own. Miracles can happen when you have a place to call home. Don’t believe me? Check out these numbers: In 2013, Pathways to Housing DC maintained a 90% retention rate even among those not considered “housing ready” by other programs. Further, “Pathways to Housing’s national organization projects it costs $57 a night to provide independent housing, far more affordable than $73 to sleep in a shelter, $164 locked in prison, $519 spent in the emergency room, or $1185 in a psychiatric hospital.”
The numbers don’t lie. Ending chronic homelessness is possible. It won’t be easy. You’ll have to be your brother and sister’s keeper, but it can be done. If only you will obey the entire commandment: “There shall be no poor among you.”
Maureen Burke is an MSW candidate at The Catholic University of America and a Graduate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies.