A letter to the editor in today's Times-Picayune disturbed me a bit. The writer insinuates that churches are betraying their purpose if the church buildings are not open all day for the homeless. In fact, the writer insists that church buildings should be required, under penalty of losing tax-exempt status, to stay open to offer hospitality to the homeless. That's what bothered me, I think: the attempt to force this "solution" being coupled with a not-so veiled threat, plus the not-so veiled accusation that churches are failing the homeless. (This after the the Burger King "campaign for your cause" awarded 50K to City Park and not to the homeless shelter run by a church group.)
In Chicago, where the weather truly requires the kind of shelter the writer would mandate, Holy Name Cathedral is open all day, and there are often homeless people sleeping in the pews. But there is also a security guard at a desk inside the church. Every once in a while, the guard has to tap a beggar on the shoulder and remind him (usually it's a him) not to ask people for a handout when those visitors are praying. I guess the writer didn't think about the costs related to security issues. In one of the areas north of the city, area churches participate in the "Pads" program, taking turns to offer shelter to the homeless. But they also need volunteers to help with the practical matters of offering hospitality to exceptionally needy and fragile people. It's not as simple as it sounds: just unlock the churches and let the homeless stay there during the day! Part of me wonders if the writer of that letter really was just looking for a way to sweep the homeless out of his way and thought that the city's church buildings would be a good place to put them.
In Chicago a local mission opened a fabulous new shelter just south of the Loop. Here in New Orleans, the Harry Thompson Center attempts to address people's needs in a broad way, not just putting a roof over their heads for a few hours. From what I see in Chicago, unless the weather is particularly bad, some of our homeless seem to find it more to their advantage during the daytime to be out in the public, where kind passers-by have spare change.
Ultimately, no one can force people, no matter how needy, to take refuge anywhere. (This is, sad to say, more than obvious during Chicago's winters, when people freeze to death outside because they refuse to be taken to a warming station.)