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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 108 (Suppl.), December 2008



Mr. Roger Playwin,

National Executive Director Society of St. Vincent de Paul,

United States Council



The Society's Mission is four-fold:


  1. Grow spiritually in Christ

  2. Offer person-to-person service to the poor

  3. Become friends with each other and the poor

  4. Engage in advocacy for and with the poor to alleviate the root causes of poverty


Currently in the United States the Society has 120,000 members in 4,700 Parish Conferences with 119 Diocesan Councils and 300 District Councils in 8 Regions in the United States. We employ about 3,000 staff across the country. Last year (2005/2006) the Society served over 15 million people, and the total value of services provided was $473,000,000 dollars to those in need.

We provide extensive services based on the needs of a given community. Rent and mortgage assistance, help with utilities, medical bills, food, shelter, transportation, burial costs, education to name a few. We also operate what we call "Special Works": shelters for men, women and children, residential and day camps, employment training, housing projects for adults, families and elderly; prison ministry programs, thrift stores and other programs that benefit the needy.

We believe "No work of charity is foreign to the Society" and we believe in "being creative to infinity."

We were founded by Blessed Frederic Ozanam, a 20-year old college student at the University of Paris in 1830. We are currently in 140 countries.

Homelessness in the United States

In the United States, homelessness does not discriminate. Children, families, adults who are single, teenagers, the elderly, individuals from all races and economic backgrounds.[1]

The primary cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing. Over 5 million low-income households have serious housing problems.[2]

According to the United States Department of Health & Human Services, 600,000 men, women and children go homeless every night in the United States. This means that in one week at any given time, 4,200,000 people can be homeless.

37.1 million plus people live at or below the poverty line in the United States and the number is growing.

In the United States, homelessness is defined as the condition and societal category of people who lack fixed housing because they cannot afford a regular, safe, and adequate shelter.[3]

Among the causes for homelessness are: Loss of employment, substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, lack of affordable housing, release from prison, poverty, natural disaster, lack of affordable health care, lack of education.

Most homelessness is man-made, the result of inappropriate policies, the unintended results of policies on systems designed and created by humans; the things we do or don't do to each other.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul believes this type of homelessness can be prevented by a more intentional collaboration by government, ecumenical cooperation that ensures:

  • Economic security for families and individuals
  • Improved access to physical and mental health services
  • Educational opportunities
  • Creations of affordable housing
  • The end of predatory loan practices
  • Increased solidarity with the poor by the community

The reduction of the number of people living in poverty and impacted by racism.

Efforts directed to the seven areas can make a significant impact on this crisis.

We must find ways to encourage the entire community to be involved and committed to creating ways of preventing poverty and homelessness.

We need to be creative and allow for programs to be developed that are of the best practices in this area. 

Human Commitment and the Pastoral Care of the Homelessness

The Church's social teaching requires a response from both clergy and lay leadership and others to ensure that the poor are involved in and part of the solution. Leadership at each level needs to be collaborative, creative and inclusive in responding to the growing crisis.

We have the physical, human and financial resources. We need to create the critical mass that will ensure we have the "will" to make the elimination of poverty, racism and homelessness a very high priority. This is critical if we are to impact this crisis in a positive way.

Someone once said: "If you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you always got; you have to do what you've never done."

For those of faith, we need to trust in the Holy Spirit, work collaboratively to achieve systemic change that brings about an end to homelessness and a resolution to poverty. There are very serious social costs if we fail to act.

The Human Commitment and the Pastoral Care of the Homeless have the same moral mandate spelled out in Matthew 25:31-45:

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?" And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." Then he will say to those at his left hand, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me." Then they also will answer, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?" Then he will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”


[1] National Alliance to End Homelessness.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Homelessness from Wikipedia, p.1.