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Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change


Changing the Conversation

‘Tis the Season of Giving. When is the Season of Justice?

12/4/14 01:50 PM | Katie Volk | Social Justice, Homelessness

Here is the gist of what I came across as I was sifting through the news these past few days:

Homelessness has become a criminal act. People are actually getting arrested for trying to meet their basic needs. Other people are getting arrested for actually helping people meet their basic needs.

One in 30 children experienced homelessness in the US in 2013.

Tis the season of giving. Contribute to our food drive/clothing drive/gift drive today.

Professionally, I have made an intentional choice to spend my work hours focusing on issues of poverty and justice. I am fortunate to be surrounded by strong advocates who work for justice, mercy, and sensible solutions to complicated social issues. I am bolstered by their commitment and energy.

Personally, I am angrier and angrier. I wonder if we have lost our moral compass. I believe that public policy should promote the common good – and especially, lift up the vulnerable among us. “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another,” says Mother Theresa. In other words, we are all in this together.

From a policy perspective, from a human rights perspective, and from a communal perspective, we have a moral obligation to help alleviate suffering—even when that is uncomfortable. Policies that criminalize homelessness do not live up to this ethic. If seeing people living on the streets make us uncomfortable, our response should not be to change the bench styles so that they cannot lie down. Instead it should be to fund more housing-focused outreach teams, create more opportunities for mental health treatment, and other policies that address the root causes of homelessness.

We are about to enter the “season of giving.” Churches run food drives. Schools collect winter clothing. Banks and supermarkets run holiday gift drives. Thousands of Americans spend time volunteering at soup kitchens, nursing homes, and shelters.

But what happens in January? In March? In August? Charity is all well and good - food, clothing, and companionship are essential to our wellbeing. I am more interested, though, in justice. If we spent our efforts focused on creating a society where all could thrive, what changes would we make to social policy? Living wages. Affordable housing. Health care. Support for parents. Good schools. Mental health and addictions treatment.

Over the next few weeks, I will bring warm clothes to our church’s clothing drive. I will send my son to school with canned goods for the food drive. And I will continually challenge myself, throughout the year, to focus my energy on root causes rather than only temporary solutions. It is the only way that we can truly live up to the promise of hospitality that has greeted so many at the gateway to our country: “Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest- tost to me,/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This is the only way we can live with integrity.


Image via jaqian/CC BY 2.0


Katie Volk

Written by Katie Volk

Katie Volk has been focusing on poverty and related issues since 2000. She is currently the Co-Principal Investigator on a Center for Social Innovation project to develop an online ecological risk and resilience assessment for young children in low-resource settings. Katie is the former Managing Director of t3 (think. teach. transform.) and has trained thousands of service providers in diverse settings, including the post-Katrina Gulf. Her primary areas of focus include homelessness, trauma-informed care, and child development.