This piece originally appeared in Medium.
“Move them away from here.” “We need a family-friendly Venice again.” “The solution should be somewhere else, not Venice.”
Those were some of the public comments made during a meeting of the Venice Neighborhood Council late last month regarding the area’s homeless population. Comments like these are not unique in Los Angeles, and are certainly not new. As our homeless population has ballooned, fierce opposition to meaningful and sincere efforts to fight this crisis have arisen across our city.
In this case, the effort involved the Lincoln Apartments, a project of the non-profit Venice Community Housing (VCH). And just before 1 am, nearly six hours of passionate public comment on both sides of the debate came to an end not with a bang but with a whimper; a speedy voice vote delivered a win for the opposition to this development, 14–0 with one recusal. And so the 40-unit project of permanent supportive housing moved toward the Los Angeles Planning Commission with a firm stamp of disapproval from the body representing the housed neighbors. The following week, the Planning Commission approved the project, but the voices that emerged during the neighborhood debate betrayed a deeply-rooted disdain for long-term, public efforts to fight the homelessness crisis from even the most surprising corners.
One stamp of disapproval that was particularly notable didn’t come from Venice at all, but from downtown. It was a letter penned by Edward Clark, an Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and by Paul Escala, the Superintendent of Catholic schools. In their two-page letter to Samantha Millman, president of the LA City Planning Department, the pair expressed opposition to the Lincoln Apartments. They cited the danger that this housing poses to the families and children of St. Mark’s Parish, a Catholic community next door. The letter was shared widely on social media by opponents of the development, and cited during the Neighborhood Council meeting. It was clear that the stance of the parish, backed by the heft of the Archdiocese, was of considerable consequence.
As a Catholic and a native Angeleno who has watched his city’s housing crisis explode, I find the stance expressed in that letter objectionable, and deeply disappointing. The Scriptures are full of calls to confront our social ills, not meekly shrink away from them or shoo them away as someone else’s problem. In the Gospel of John we are implored to care for the other: “but whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us love not in word and in tongue, but in deed and truth.’’ Yes, even when it’s hard. In Isaiah, we are literally called to bring the homeless in our houses.
In this day and age, there are organizations doing exactly that, fulfilling what for us Christians is a prophetic call. We don’t have to bring the homeless into our own homes, but neither should we stand in the way of those doing it for us. Our Church has dark parts of its history, but one of our brightest is the immensity of its heart and of its global operations caring for the neediest and most neglected. The long history of Catholic social teaching is rightfully a source of pride for many of us eager to engage our faith in a troubled world.
My initial reaction to the opposition to this project on the part of the Archdiocese was outrage. But in the end, the strongest emotion left was heartbreak, not solely because of its opposition to this singular project, but because of that long history of fierce and innovative social justice action that it fails to reflect. Catholic activists like Day and Chávez stood up for worker’s rights. Lay Catholic missionaries cared for Latin America’s poor as civil wars raged, and gave their lives for it. Catholic sisters right here in the US cared for the sick at the height of the AIDS crisis when no one else would touch them. Time and again, the Catholic Church — the body of people, not always the men behind Vatican walls — has been in the trenches, defending the marginalized even when the work was difficult or politically unpopular.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops refers to homelessness as a “human tragedy”. And in Los Angeles, that tragedy is on full display. A look at Skid Row, where thousands of unhoused people have concentrated, demonstrates that the streets of Los Angeles are indeed a tragedy in motion.
In his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, Pope Francis invokes the language of our highest commandments when he writes that “today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.” And in Los Angeles County, it certainly does. In 2018, 1,047 people experiencing homelessness died on our streets. That’s double the 2013 figure, and more than three times the homeless deaths recorded in New York City. This is indeed a tragedy, and we can no longer afford to sit on our hands. There simply isn’t time.
In their letter, Bishop Clark and Mr. Escala write that the safety of the children is paramount. Of course the safety of children is paramount. So what about the more than 2,600 unaccompanied minors living on the streets of LA County? Or the young adults who have just barely aged out of the foster care system and who are the exact demographic best served by projects like the Lincoln Apartments? Who is making their safety of paramount importance? Where is outrage for them?
The children and families of St. Mark’s absolutely deserve a safe community. A project like the Lincoln Apartments actually offers an effective and proven solution: assist those transitioning out of homelessness into housed, employed lives and get them off the streets and into real homes. Though Bishop Clark and Mr. Escala rightly point to the work done by the Church for the homeless elsewhere, their opposition to this project undermines the efforts to find meaningful and lasting solutions such as this one to a deepening crisis.
There are ways forward that meet the needs of all parties, and we have long histories of forward-thinking conviction as Catholics and as a city from which to draw inspiration. Jesus was a revolutionary, the Church a vanguard of social justice, and LA a home to some of the most innovative minds and movements of our times. So, faced with a crisis that leaves nearly sixty thousand human beings on the streets, vulnerable to hunger, disease, and crime, that Los Angeles is failing is outrageous. In this fight, in a city besieged by a life-or-death crisis, the Archdiocese sadly adopted a short-sighted position. The Jesuit value of magis reminds us that more is always expected of us in the service of God and the universal good. Shelters and soup kitchens are worthy efforts, but permanent homes and supportive services must be goal that we fight for at every opportunity. The cost of not doing so is devastating.