What Have You Done to Your Homeless Brother?

The Church And The Housing Problem

Document of the Pontifical Commission "Justitia et Pax" on the Occasion of the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless


1. In global terms, there is little doubt that the housing problem is one of today's most serious social questions. In fact, the cry of despair of so many men and women, children and elderly people who do not have a roof over their head or who have, as their only shelter, something that could hardly be called even "a dwelling" resounds across the world and finds its echo in the United Nations, the international forum par excellence:

The "International Year of Shelter for the Homeless" is, consequently, a privileged opportunity for becoming more aware of this harsh reality, as described in the figures released by the competent bodies. Those lacking adequate housing number in the millions: The moral conscience of people must be awakened to this fact so that there be greater social justice and broader solidarity.

Political authorities, religious leaders and, in general, public opinion all recognize that a situation in which millions of human beings lack adequate housing is a serious problem. As in the case of other world-wide problems, such as unemployment and the foreign debt of poorer countries, urgent measures must be taken. Such a situation represents, in fact, a very serious obstacle to economic and social development, as well as to assuring those conditions necessary for a dignified human existence. A fundamental human right is, in reality, being violated. An adequate response to such a large scale problem calls for the shaping of a consistent political will, as well as an increased awareness of the collective responsibility of all, and particularly of Christians, for the future of society.

2. The Catholic Church shares in and makes its own the suffering of these millions of people. From the time of the earliest Christian communities, the Church has always shown a preference for the poor, the needy, the outcasts of society, in her social and charitable works. The human and spiritual wealth of those countless charitable and philanthropic works, established by the Church throughout her existence, constitutes the most striking historical monument to this dedication and preferential love for the poor.

Rooted in its long tradition of knowledge of humanity, the Church appeals to governments and to those with social responsibilities to take the necessary decisions and set up economic programs that will adequately meet the need for housing, particularly for the poorest and the most marginalized.

Through this document, the Church's intention is to reflect on her own experience, witness, and commitment in this field. Within the overall framework of her social doctrine, she examines the problem, interprets it and attempts to offer a comprehensive understanding of its ramifications. She also proposes an ethical evaluation that can serve as a basis for concrete action and speaks of some of her own efforts and charitable realizations. The Church is convinced that, by following the path of social justice and by overcoming various egoisms, substantial progress can be made in solving the housing crisis.


A Critical Social Situation

The Pontifical Commission "Iustitia et Pax" wanted information on the housing situation. It therefore sought the help of the Episcopal Conferences and Oriental Catholic Churches. The Commission is grateful for the exemplary rapidity with which they responded (cf. list in annex).

1. The information received confirms the alarming dimensions of the situation. The problem of the homeless, or of those who lack what might be considered adequate shelter, according to current criteria,3 is so widespread that it is overwhelming. This phenomenon is still more striking if, in addition to the quantitative aspect of millions of homeless, the qualitative aspect, that is the infrahuman living conditions to which these persons are submitted, is also taken into account.

Beyond the numerical dimensions, studies and reports do, in fact, highlight the stark image of the life of the homeless. A phenomenological description of this reality will help, in our opinion, in better understanding both the extent and different levels of the problem.

2. An entire catalogue of the categories of people who never had a place to live or who, if they did have one from time to time have lost it, could be drawn up. Today, neither of these groups has any possibility of finding a place to live. There are presently large numbers of people who are born, live and die in the open air. Then, there are refugees, uprooted by war or natural calamities, as well as many others who are the victims of injustice or greed.

A few figures will suffice to give an idea of the extent of the problem. A thousand million people, that is one fifth of the human race, do not have decent housing. One hundred million quite literally do not have a roof over their head. In Western Europe, for example, more than a million people are seeking adequate lodging. In Latin America, it is estimated that 20 million children sleep in the street. In 1986, more than 600 million people--45% of the total urban population of the world--lived in zones of misery around big cities, in shantytowns or in slum neighborhoods.

3. The qualitative aspect, that is the reality behind the expression "homeless", also needs to be scrutinized.

First of all, there are homeless individuals, often the victims of personal problems (alcoholism, unemployment, family crises or simply social marginalization), for whom the solution does not simply lie in being given shelter or a place to live. Each one of these people bears the burden of a different problem which, at times, is at the origin of their homeless state. Such people are at a clear disadvantage vis-à-vis the possibilities on the housing market. In many cases, a total solution can be reached only by the State, the Church or private institutions providing them with social services.

In the second place, there are young people and fiances who want to get married. Often enough, the amount of money needed to acquire a decent home, coupled with a housing shortage, involves long and painful delays before they can find a place to live. This situation sometimes creates serious obstacles to their right to found a family. Such concrete difficulties often constitute a psychological barrier for these young people and are a veritable dissuasive force when it comes to assuming a commitment to marriage. Those who do get married, despite all of these conditioning factors, sometimes have to live with their parents for a long time or struggle with the burden of housing costs or high rents for a number of years. This situation has negative consequences for their life together and on the healthy development of this new family. It is not rare that the first years of married life are conditioned by such exterior factors that result in an almost forced delay in having children. This, in turn, troubles the harmony of conjugal life and is detrimental to both society and the Church.

In the third place, there is the social category of the marginalized, in both rural and urban milieus, who have only precarious lodgings and are struck by the attendant range of miseries and other social, economic, juridical and political problems that such a situation brings with it. Such groupings can be found almost everywhere in the world, and their name has now become part of the vocabulary of several languages.4 All of these settlements are more or less similar: improvised constructions of low grade material or cast oils (tin, cardboard, plastic, bamboo, etc.), not part of any regulatory plan, lacking the necessary infrastructure, often built illegally on public or private land. The inhabitants of other zones of the city hold these settlements in fear and distrust, considering them to be, not human settlements which everyone has a responsibility to improve and develop, but as the source of many ills: alcoholism, drugs, crime, etc. As in other cases, the symptom replaces the real problem.

If this reality and extent of the urban phenomenon is disturbing, it is equally so, if perhaps to a less tragic degree, in rural areas. The living conditions of millions who work on the land and indigenous peoples are inhuman: dilapidated housing, chronic malnutrition, lack of drinking water, of electricity, of sanitary facilities, of schools and transportation, etc.

The problem of those who, in the strict sense "don't have a roof" is certainly the most critical and the most serious. But it is not the only one. It must be set within the broader framework of the housing shortage which, in many places, affects entire social strata, all of which are not below the poverty line. This crisis likewise has a dual aspect : quantitative because there are either no places to live or the number is insufficient, and qualitative because those available often are not suitable.

If this is true for the higher socio-economic levels, it is small wonder that, at the lower levels--in a sort of aberrant logic--there are so many men and women who simply do not have a roof over their head, in the literal sense of the word. That is, they not only do not have a suitable place to live, but simply have nothing at all, no place in which to take shelter and find some protection from the elements.

Throughout this document, an effort will be made to take both of these aspects into consideration.

The lack of housing that we have briefly described constitutes, without a doubt, one of the most tragic indications of that underdevelopment which strikes so many people, or to be still more precise, which affects a large part of humanity.

This situation is not simply a fact to which those with responsibilities in the field and indeed all persons are called to react. Rather, from an ethical point of view, it is a scandal and one more indication of the unjust distribution of goods, originally destined for the use of all.


A Distressing Sign of the Times

In order to observe, interpret and understand the dramatic situation of those without a suitable place to live, an effort must be made to discern, or, in other words, to analyze. The qualitative and quantitative data concerning the massive phenomenon of homelessness in today's world must be differentiated, compared and evaluated. Such an examination of the various facets of the subjects is a good way to reach a global understanding of the problem: its link with the other essential aspects of liŁe, its causes, its relationship to the rich/poor dialectic.

1. The situation of the homeless is not an isolated phenomenon. In any socio-economic reality--which includes that of housing--it is the human person that is the true focus and point of convergence. But one of the essential factors in a person's reality is his or her living conditions, that is the totality of those elements that determine the standard of living of a population, a local community, a group.

These living conditions represent the basic needs of the person: education, food, housing, healthcare, work. In order therefore to interpret and understand correctly the figures and data concerning the problem of the homeless, one must courageously and lucidly relate the housing question to the entire range of other previously mentioned factors.

2. While in one place or another, the habitat problem can result from a series of circumstances related to personal or family crises, the lack of sufficient housing must be considered a structural crisis rising from multiple causes but ending inevitably in poverty. A distressing sign of the times, this poverty lays bare those socioeconomic inequalities that have given rise to an inhuman separation denoted by the expression "North-South" or "Rich countries - Poor countries". These same gaps and inequalities are also found today in the "North".

At the source of the problem of housing, and of its increase and extent, lies unemployment, low salaries, the rural exodus and an unregulated and overly rapid industrialization. The picture becomes still more complex if a series of demographic factors are taken into account, such as an accelerated population growth in certain regions and, most particularly, the phenomenon of urbanization. There are likewise inadequate or insufficient housing policies and government plans. Certain of these causes merit careful study. Above all, it must be remembered, however, that the lack of housing, as noted above, is a structural problem and not merely the result of a series of unrelated circumstances.

The difficulties that people have in trying to buy or to rent adequate lodging, suited to their needs, is often not a self-contained problem but is due, on the one hand, to inflated prices in the housing market and. on the other hand, to excessively low salaries in those countries in which economic and sociopolitical structures are in crisis. In such societies. work may be considered just one more type of merchandise among others which appear on the market. In reality, people's work should provide them with means that are adequate to meet their needs as well as the needs of those who are economically dependent on them.

One of these essential needs, as previously said, is a suitable place to live. Yet a large segment of the population can count only on a job as the unique source of fixed income. The number of those that earn less than what might be called a family income can be counted in the millions, not to mention those whose salary is below the legal minimum. These inadequate salaries, particularly in the poor countries, have a negative incidence on the possibility of access to housing.

In today's situation, a series of demographic factors also make it more difficult to face up to the housing problem. In certain regions where human development is already precarious, population growth is rapid. This complicates the situation still further. In other regions, modifications in the population structure, as, for example, its progressive aging, present new challenges.

There can be no doubt, however, that the most significant demo graphic phenomenon is that of urbanization, a question that Paul VI has already examined in his Apostolic Letter, Octogesima Adveniens.6

The world population is increasingly concentrated in urban zones. In 1950, 29% of the total population was urban; by 1980, this figure had reached 40%. It is projected that, shortly after the year 2000, for the first time in history, more than half of the world's population will live in cities.

To this acceleration of the urbanization process can be added a change in the structure of cities, and in particular the growth of very large cities. It is predicted that, in twenty years, the population of these "mega-cities" will have doubled. The majority of them, moreover, will be in the developing countries. Such cities lack the infrastructures necessary to meet the needs of their inhabitants as regards food, work and housing. It follows that any reflection on the homeless must carefully examine the basic causes of urbanization, one of the most complex problems of present-day societal organization.

In considering the various causes of the housing crisis, the political factor should not be overlooked. Most States already have, or are planning to develop, a housing policy. No one is unaware of the complexity of such policies in today's world. Yet one could wonder if, in this area, the decisions of governments always take into account the real priorities or if the present critical situation is not also a consequence of a great time lag that it will be difficult to overcome in present circumstances, despite earnest efforts.

A just housing policy must necessarily include the participation of the private sector as well as that of the State. Moreover, it should encourage self-help projects and collaborative efforts within the local community itself.

As is well known, a lack of housing is sometimes the result of political instability, of conflicts within a country or of war. In such circumstances, the question of refugees comes to the fore. They nearly always end up in the same situation as that of the homeless. This document cannot examine at any length the condition of refugee populations, with its highly particular characteristics, calling for widespread acts of international solidarity. It must not be forgotten, however, that, among the huge numbers of homeless across the world, refugees constitute one of the groups that are in truly dramatic situations of poverty and suffering. They are often forced to remain for years in camps of first asylum, in living situations that would be tolerable only in emergencies or for a brief time of transit. There is no way that they can foresee what the future will hold for them, exposed as they are to the ongoing effects of the wars or conflicts that surround them, even in the countries that have given them asylum. They have lost all of their belongings and are far from all who are dear to them.

It can likewise happen that entire populations are displaced to serve economic or political ends of dubious ideological inspiration. In such cases, it is notable that the resettlement needs of the displaced persons and families are not adequately provided for.

The division or forced separation of city zones according to the racial origins of the inhabitants is, by its very nature, an unacceptable form of discrimination which inevitably results in different housing standards, depending on the groups who are living in a particular zone.

All of the root causes of the housing problem that have been enumerated point to a generalization of relative or absolute poverty, particularly in the Third World countries. In general terms, the situation of homelessness is the result of poverty and of social marginalization. In other words, it is the result of a whole series of economic, social, cultural, physical, emotional and moral factors that specifically bear down on those who have never been integrated into the current social system. Without substantial changes and modifications within societies marked by this fault, such integration will remain difficult or even impossible.

The help that social services and various aid organizations are able to give to the homeless can often appear to be the solution to individual or particular problems, as if one were dealing here with a sick person or a handicapped person, doomed to live that way. It can also happen that the public services departments of the State decide that such people do not need any special attention or help beyond that already provided by philanthropic or charitable organizations. In reality, there is a structural problem concerning the overall organization of a given society or country.

3. The causes of homelessness which have been indicated--and they are not the only ones--deprive both individuals and families of a fundamental good which in turn responds to a primary need from which other needs flow that are equally impossible or difficult to satisfy.

Without a doubt, above and beyond these immediate causes, there are more radical roots to present-day social ills: an unjust distribution of goods, the gap between rich and poor in the same society or between nations and entire continents. "In the countries of the so-called Third World, families often lack both the means necessary for survival, such as food, work, housing, medicine and the most elementary freedoms".7


An Ethical and Christian Evaluation

1. Any discernment concerning the complex situation of the homeless cannot be satisfied with a simple interpretation or global understanding of the matter. Rather, it must also include an ethical evaluation of the new challenge presented by this modern-day poverty.

The primary objective of such an evaluation is not to assign blame or responsibilities for having caused and maintained the situation in question. This is not, however, to be excluded.

It must be stressed, once more, that when the perspective adopted is that the situation is not the result of a fortuitous series of circumstances but rather has structural causes, the lack of housing can be considered to be a juridical shortcoming.

2. Several international documents8 specifically include among other human rights the right to housing, in the context of the right to an "adequate standard of living".9

Thus, the Church wanted to include the right to housing in the Charter of the Rights of the Family. The Fathers who participated in the 1980 Synod of Bishops judged such a document necessary. Among other fundamental rights, they made reference to "the right to housing suitable for living family life in a proper way".10 At the suggestion of the Synodal Fathers, the Holy See later published a Charter for presentation to "all concerned institutions and authorities.11 In this document, it is explicitly stated that "the family has the right to decent housing, fitting for family life and commensurate to the number of its members, in a physical environment that provides the basic services for the life of the family and the community".12

These juridical formulations attempt to express the true dimensions of the lack of housing. Far from being a matter of simple lack or deprivation, to be homeless means to suffer from the deprivation or lack of something which is due. This, consequently, constitutes an injustice. Any ethical consideration of the housing problem must take this as its point of departure.

Any person or family that, without any direct fault on his or her part, does not have suitable housing is the victim of an injustice. In the light of what has been previously stated, it is evident that this injustice is clearly a structural injustice, caused and perpetuated by personal injustices. It is likewise, however, an autonomous and independent phenomenon, with its own interior unjust and disordered dynamism.

Two different aspects of this injustice, necessarily related one to the other, need to be taken into consideration.

The first concerns the situation of persons and families who either totally lack housing or do not have decent housing. These families and persons are victims of a grave injustice because of this lack of suitable housing, however simple it may be. In such conditions, they are unable to live a dignified life, either as individuals or as families. To this can be added that, at times, they just do not live at all, but rather simply exist. The reports received mention cases of homeless people dying because of exposure to the elements: heat or cold. Life in today's big cities is marked by painful events that do not always receive the attention that they deserve.

Considered from another aspect, the injustice of which homeless persons and families are victims can be laid at the door of a social organization or political will which is, at times, either deficient or powerless.

At this point, it is important to remember that society, as well as the State, has the obligation to guarantee for its citizens and members those living conditions without which they cannot achieve fulfillment, either as persons or as families. The fact that, in certain regions of the world, a large part of the population--individuals or families--passes its entire life in the street certainly does not dispense the State or society from this obligation. It is sometimes presented as a pretext that the lack of housing is proper to a certain type of culture. Anything which does not meet the basic needs of a person alone or in a family cannot be considered part of any authentic culture. From this point of view, the right to housing is a universal right.

3. It is well to recall the age-old teaching of the Catholic Church concerning the universal destination of goods. The text in Gaudium et Spes on this subject reads: "God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all people, so that all created goods would be shared fairly by all mankind, under the guidance of justice tempered by charity".13

This clearly signifies that those goods without which it is impossible for a person to lead a decent human life must be equitably provided to those who lack them. In the light of this teaching of the Church on the universal destination of goods, one can understand that property has a specific social function, subordinated to the right to common use.14 In reflecting on this principle, we can better see that housing constitutes a basic social good and cannot simply be considered a market commodity.

How, then, in practice, does this principle apply to homelessness? This point must be examined in order to try to respond to certain difficult situations in various regions of the world.

It is not hard to demonstrate that, in certain large cities, the number of empty houses would suffice to provide housing for the majority of the homeless, however numerous they may be. Along side of people without a roof, there are roofs that shelter no one. In the face of such a situation, public authorities have the obligation to establish norms regulating the just distribution of housing. This is not to say that the construction and allocation of housing can become an exclusive State monopoly. The experience of regions where such a policy prevails shows that serious housing problems also remain.

Turning next to still more concrete situations, priority attention must be given to the problem of building speculation in its various forms. Property is at the service of the human person. Any speculative practice which diverts property use from its function of serving the human person should be considered an abuse.

Two specific problems also need to be considered. Conflicts of rights and legitimate interests often arise concerning rundown housing or housing which is in urgent need of repair. The tenant suffers the consequences of the deterioration of the building while the owner, above all if he is a small property owner, cannot manage to increase the value of his property. In such cases, a policy must be developed for the renovation of buildings that protects the rights of one party without disproportionately harming those of the other.

In major metropolises, particularly in developing countries, there is also a serious phenomenon of people leaving rural areas to go to the city and who build illegal housing on public or private land that does not belong to them. All too often, they are led to do this by desperation, not having any other housing possibility, however precarious it may be. An urgent solution to such situations must be found, based on the right of all to a decent home. The problem clearly will not find adequate solution in obligatory resettlements alone or in the destruction of entire squatter settlements. A just solution also requires a serious study of the roots of internal migration.

Finally, our reflection on the highly complex situation of the homeless cannot fail to raise the question of the heavy burden of personal suffering that is the result of legal evictions. While they may be legitimate according to the law, such evictions raise a series of ethical questions when it comes to people who truly have no other housing possibilities.

Everything said so far concerning particular difficult situations highlights the fact that each family, in order to fulfill its mission, must be guaranteed a certain degree of security, even as regards housing. The right to shelter also implies the notion of security.

Social progress in this area depends on the ability of society to implement bold rent policies and local planning programs developed with wide community participation. Such measures and programs must guarantee an atmosphere favorable to the educational, sanitary, cultural and religious development of all sectors of the population as well as that of each individual.

Mention has already been made several times of the necessity of assuring the broadest possible participation of the different sectors of society in the development of housing policies. Experience has shown that, along side of public authorities, and sometimes even before them, certain private and public organizations are working to remedy the lack of housing and to help homeless individuals or families. The action of the Church finds its place within this context.

An important point to be emphasized is that the problem of the lack of decent housing concerns not only the millions of peoples who are its victims, nor even institutions, but is also a challenge to every man and woman with a house and who discovers or becomes more keenly aware of the extent and depth of the drama of those without one. Each one of us should feel obliged to do what he or she can do, either directly or indirectly, through various existing organizations, so that others can also enjoy a right of which they have been deprived.

This by no means excludes the action of the men and women who are homeless. On the contrary! Once informed of their rights, and if necessary with adequate legal assistance to defend these rights, the homeless should be encouraged to form grass roots associations for the purpose of procuring housing. In the same way, society must not be allowed to forget a tragedy that we are only too often ready to ignore. A lack of housing can, it is painful to note, even accustom people and families to subminimal conditions of existence.

Within this overall framework, one cannot forget the needs of those categories of persons who, because of a long nomad tradition, prefer not to settle in one place but belong to the number of those who are always on the move. These people have the right to places adapted to their way of life where they can have access to certain basic services and assure the physical, intellectual, cultural and religious development of their children. Unfortunately, these itinerants do not always find, on the part of the settled community, that understanding to which they have a right; in certain cases, they are even the victims of hostility and intolerance. Bonds of friendship and solidarity must be forged with these itinerants, and a greater understanding of their culture and specific problems be developed.

4. For each Christian and for the Church, as the People of God, the stark reality of homeless persons and families is at one and the same time an appeal to conscience and an exigency to do something to remedy the situation.

In each person or family lacking a basic good, and above all housing, the Christian must recognize Christ himself, as the well known words of Matthew's Gospel state: "I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me" (Mt 25, 42ff). In the last two categories of persons, is truly reflected, to a certain degree, the situation of the homeless, and it is necessary to recognize the Lord himself in them. Actually, when he came into the world, "there was no place for them in the inn" (Lk 2, 7).

In the same way, the contrast that the parable of Luke's Gospel establishes between its two protagonists--the rich man "who feasted sumptuously every day" and Lazarus lying at his gate--sets before our eyes the reality of what separates those who have housing and those who do not. We know all too well the judgement reserved for the absolute indifference of the rich man before the pressing needs of Lazarus. The situation of the two was reversed in the next world. Lazarus was comforted "in the bosom of Abraham" while the rich man was "in torment" in the midst of flames. And this was to be a lasting situation; a "chasm" had been fixed so that none could cross over (cf. Lk 16, 19-31).

In looking at the question of shelter through the eyes of Sacred Scripture, the value that it represents for each individual, and above all for every family, is cast in sharp relief, as is the drama of the lack or loss of this good. It is obvious that the concept of "housing" or of "decent housing" is not the same today as it was then. Also, the people of Israel never forgot their experience in the desert where they lived "under the tent". But even in that era, not to have a tent would have signified certain death.

This respect for the value of "housing", in relation to the family and to its intimacy and inviolability, can be found, inter alia, in the stipulation of the law that forbad the creditor to go "into the house" of the debtor to exact repayment of his debt: he was to wait outside and let the debtor bring it to him (cf. Dt 24, 10). In the same vein, the text continues that if the debtor "is a poor man", the creditor could not keep his garment as a pledge after sundown (cf. Dt 24, 12 ff; Ex 22, 25 ff). No one was to be deprived of his essential goods, even to assure repayment of a debt.

The loss of a place to live was, for this reason, one of the greatest misfortunes that could strike a people when war was waging in the countryside or cities (cf. Lam 2, 2; 5, 3; Is 1, 8; Jer 4, 20 etc.). The survivors were uprooted from the land of their ancestors and sent into exile where they would find no place to settle. On the contrary, to live in one's own home, with one's family, was a sign of happiness and peace (cf. Ps 128/127, 3; Jb 29, 4; Jer 29, 5. 28; 30, 18 etc.).

Tradition also teaches us how God himself wanted his people to build him a "house" (cf. Ps 112, 1) in which he deigned "to dwell" and "to make his name dwell there" (cf. Dt 12, 11 et passim). In John's Gospel, the Word made Flesh is said "to live", that is to "dwell among us" (]n 1, 14 ).

Our final destiny, when we meet God after death, is expressed through the concept of "house" or "dwelling". "In my Father's house are many rooms" (]n 14, 2).

It can, therefore, be clearly seen that our Christian religious tradition, inherited from Judaism, attributes a fundamental value to "housing" which we can still recognize today. The direct relation between "housing" and family, also stressed in the Charter of the Rights of the Family, is presumed in the New Testament. Actually, the term "house" often signifies "family" (cf. Lk 19, 59; Acts 10, 2; 1 Cor 16 etc.). Thus, the "house" of God is his "family", that is "the Church of the living God" (1 Tm 3, 15; Acts 3,6; 1 Pet 4, 17).

The meaning of "housing" therefore goes far beyond a purely material notion. It is in direct relationship with the characteristics of the human person that are, at one and the same time, social, affective, cultural and religious.

Consistently, in the Christian tradition, the home, the Christian household, is rooted in the sacrament of marriage. The home is like a temple in which the family, the "domestic church"15 leads its daily life. The variety of activities and relationships that form its very texture find their highest expression in worship given to God, the one who gives meaning to the existence of the persons that he has created and fully enriches it.

In the light of this Christian vision, it is easy to understand better the profound injustice endured by the homeless or those who lack decent housing. It is sad to note that "large sections of humanity live in conditions of extreme poverty , in which promiscuity, lack of housing, the irregular and instability of relationships and the extreme lack of education make it impossible in practice to speak of a true family"16

It must finally be stressed that an injustice is committed when space and means for building places of worship are considered superfluous and are thus eliminated from urban plans. Rather they are places where religious groups can assemble, as in their own home, to praise, bless and give thanks to God.


The Witness And Action of the Church

1. The concern of the Church for housing and its insistence in calling for decent housing for all flows from three considerations:

-- adequate housing is important if a person is to find fulfillment, both as an individual and as a member of a family and society;

-- the witness that the Church seeks to give in collaborating in the search for a solution to the problems of the poor is a sign of the presence of the kingdom of salvation and liberation;

-- the mission of the Church also consists in helping to make society more human.

In this sense, the act of providing housing for a person who has none is a concrete expression, not of simple social assistance, but of the evangelical message and of the works of mercy in that they are also works of Christian faith.17 That is why "note must be taken of the ever greater importance in our society of hospitality in all its forms, from opening the door of one's home and still more of one's heart to the pleas of one's brothers and sisters, to assuring that every family has its own home, as the natural environment that preserves it and makes it grow".18 Examples of such acts are many in the life and witness of the local Churches. Pope Paul VI himself personally promoted an initiative aimed at providing housing for some families who were living in a Roman slum.19

Moreover, precisely because it has received the mission of announcing the good news to all and of leading them to salvation, the Church, at the example of Jesus Christ, watches like a mother over her children and never tires of defending their individual and social rights.20

The Church is very conscious that the lack of decent housing threatens the dignity and rights of the poorest. That is why one of the fundamental criterion for judging the justice or injustice of political and economic decisions is their effective repercussions on those on the fringes of society. Indeed, the fact of effectively dealing with different situations of poverty is a true test of the way that those with societal responsibilities are fulfilling their duty of justice. The Church is grate ful for the creation of organizations destined to sustain the economic, social and cultural right to housing, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the United Nations in 1948, and it expresses its solidarity with and support of such efforts.

2. In many countries, the number of the homeless presents a problem of vast proportions. The efforts of the local Churches to procure decent housing for those who have none, even if its realizations are limited in number, go far beyond simple material gestures. The aim of these actions is to promote the dignity of the person, as well as the stability of the family, its intimacy, the education of children, in addition to assuring the minimum conditions of health and hygiene that are indispensable for the normal development of family life. By acting in this way, the Church also reveals to those who benefit from its help the value of Christian charity and human solidarity so that they may have a direct lived experience of the mystery of love and mercy revealed through the announcing of the liberation that God brought to all in Jesus Christ.

In reviewing the action of Church organizations and institutions in favor of the homeless, it is encouraging to note not only the large number of realizations and programs in course but also to see that an education to the spirit of solidarity and responsibility is spreading among the poor themselves.

3. An analysis of the various housing programs indicates that the local Churches address the problem in three ways:

-- material help to provide shelter to homeless families;

-- education and community development;

-- dialogue with authorities in view of legislation and housing policies that are favorable to the poor.

First of all: material help is being given through various housing programs: construction of houses for families; emergency shelters and group centers; centers for the protection of young people and the elderly, etc. In many cases, these programs are coupled with the development of infrastructures for the stocking and distribution of food, dispensaries, treatment of drinking water, transportation services, schools, cultural and recreative community centers.

Secondly: a particular importance is given, in housing programs, to education efforts, to the promotion and development of persons, families and communities. In this way, efforts to help go far beyond material aid; measures are taken, for example, to develop local techniques, to produce building materials locally and to involve the family in the work to be done. The participation of the entire community is encouraged through a system of mutual help and collective labor. This favors the organization of the community and forms persons by giving them the possibility, according to Christian criteria, to integrate themselves more rapidly and actively into the social process. The action of the local Churches, therefore, also aims at the development and social integration of the homeless who are on the fringes of society.

When the community itself is involved in evaluating this socio-educative process, the positive results are evident: affirmation of the personality, awareness of the dignity of the individual and of the family. A strengthening of family bonds can also be noted, as well as increasing consideration and respect for women. In this way, a true community comes into being and grows strong while, at the same time, other socioeconomic projects get under way, assuring stability and continued growth within the community.

The local Churches in the Third World have been able to count on the support and solidarity of ecclesial communities in the industrialized countries of Europe and North America. Many housing programs exist that were prepared and developed through the generosity of the members of these Christian communities. Reports received mention concrete projects in Asia, Africa and Latin America, financed or coordinated by organizations are linked together in Caritas Internationalis or other funding institutions.

Thirdly, in addition to providing material help and promoting educational and community development efforts, local Churches are actively collaborating in attempting to find a solution for the lack of housing by dialoguing with the competent authorities and urging them to take appropriate action. The Church repeatedly requests and supports political and economic initiatives aimed at providing housing for the homeless and is in favor of, and lends its support to, lowcost housing schemes with favorable mortgage conditions. It also encourages the creation of funds for long term, low interest rate loans. With the necessary technical advice, it promotes programs that give land, with the necessary infrastructures already in place, so that families can build their own homes.

4. The action of the Church also extends to collaborating in initiatives undertaken by public and private institutions and to supporting such initiatives: for example housing programs developed by trade unions, cooperatives, solidarity associations and private initiatives. It also encourages civil engineering and architectural schools and universities engaged in community development projects, which apply construction plans that use durable local materials and apply low cost techniques.

5. In addition to this vast witness of the local Churches, a witness which is sometimes limited or blocked for ideological or political reasons, the commitment of all the active forces of society is absolutely necessary if a radical and definitive solution to the housing crisis is to be found. The problem has its roots in poverty, which depends in turn on the dialectic between development and underdevelopment and the truly scandalous division which exists between rich and poor countries. Choices must be made and political and economic measures taken that change for the better the causes of the problem.


Each nation and the entire community of nations in challenged by humanity, so to say, to build a society in which there is no one who cannot find what is minimally essential for a dignified life, where no one lacks decent housing, a principal factor in human progress.

The more desolate the panorama of poverty becomes, the greater is the responsibility of those who hold political and economic decision making power. The poorest countries and social groups hope to find a solution to the serious situation of the homeless through that universal solidarity to which they have a right.

The poor and marginalized are waiting for a concrete answer, and, first of all, for a change in the attitude of certain sectors of society that are indifferent, if not hostile, to their plight. They are urgently waiting for a bold social policy, expressed in concrete programs of accessible housing and favorable mortgage terms, coupled with easy access to the necessary technical means and legal assistance. They long to integrate themselves normally into society and see their rights recognized. They are also hoping for an economic, political and social transformation, since the problem of the homeless, as well as the housing crisis, are only the consequence of a deeper cause which must be remedied.

The commitment of the Church to the homeless is a humanitarian and evangelical commitment; it is also an expression of a preferential love for the poor. At the same time, it is an indication of the Church's support for the objectives and programs of the United Nations International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. The Church's presence and its charitable action are always a sign of that solidarity, salvation and liberation that anticipates the Kingdom of God among us.

27th December 1987
Feast of the Holy Family
Roger Card. Etchegaray President
+ Jorge Mejia Vice President


1 Cf. Resolution 10/1: "Global Strategy for Shelter to the Year 2000" of the tenth session of the Commission on Human Settlements, Nairobi (Kenya), 6-16 April 1987.
2 Habitat Report: United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, Vancouver (Canada), 31 May--ll June 1976. Report of the Executive Director of the Commission on Human Settlements; 2. "Shelter and Services for the Poor. A Call to Action", Nairobi, 6-16 April 1987. S.V. Sethuraman, "Basic Needs and the Informal Sector: the Case of LowIncome Housing in Developing Countries", ILO, Geneva, 1986. "The International Year of Shelter for the Homeless (1987)", Inter Caritas, n. 1/86, Supplementary Issue, Vatican City.
3 The two categories can be grouped under the expression "homeless", as used by the United Nations.
4 Favelas, tugurios, villas, miserias, baracche, shantytowns, ca1Iampas, chabolas, bidonvilles, slums, pueblos nuevos, etc.
5 Cf. Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, n. 69.
6 Paul VI, Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens, nn. 8-12.
7 John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, n. 6.
8 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art. 25,1; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Art. 11,1; International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Art. 5(e), III; Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Art. 21; Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, Art. 21; Charter of the Rights of the Family, Art. 11.
9 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art. 25,1.
10 John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, n. 46.
11 Ibid.
12 Charter of the Rights of the Family, Art. 11.
13 Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, n. 69.
14 Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Laborem Exercens, n. 40.
15 Cf. Dogmalic Constitution Lumen Gentium, n. 11.
16 John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, n. 44.
17 Cf. Mi 5, 16, 1314; 25, 3540; Lk 4. 181f.
18 John Paul 11, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, n. 44.
19 Cf. Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, XI, 1973 (31 July), pp. 756-57.
20 Pius XII, Christmas 1953 Radiomessage; John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, n. 4; Gaudium et Spes, nn. 26, 67b; John Paul 11, Visit to "Favela Vidigal", Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2 July 1980; Charter of the Rights of the Family, Art. XI.