Pope Francis’s last stop in Washington may generate an indelible image of his visit to the United States – and one that could resonate deeply with local leaders and churchgoers in the nation’s capital.
Before departing for New York City, the pope attended a lunch for 300 homeless men, women and children -- a fraction of the more than 11,600 estimated to be living in shelters, encampments or braving the elements nightly in the Washington region.
Speaking in Spanish at St. Patrick’s Church, Pope Francis told the story of Mary giving birth to Jesus in a manger because there was no space for her and Joseph at an inn.
“The son of God came into this world as a homeless person,” the pope said. “The son of God knew what it was to start life without a roof over his head.”
He went on to say that there is “no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.”
Churches in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, including Catholic Charities, which organized Thursday’s lunch, feed and house thousands of the city’s homeless each day and have successfully urged D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and other local politicians to make housing the most vulnerable a top civic priority.
Bowser, a practicing Catholic, has staked considerable political capital in her first year on reversing the city’s trend of record increases in homeless families, and has not been shy in saying the pope’s visit could help galvanize support for the cause.
“If you are a Washingtonian, his locking arms with all of us to end homelessness will send a very critical message,” Bowser told reporters before the pope’s arrival.
On Wednesday, a day in which she attended every one of the pope’s public appearances, Bowser released a video message on social media calling his urging to do more on climate change and for the poor inspiring.
“Pope Francis has issued a call to action across the globe,” Bowser said, “to come together to end homelessness and make sure that no person is overlooked or forgotten. I am personally inspired by the pope’s words and actions.”
Promising that she can reverse the city’s trends on homelessness is risky.
D.C. is one of the only cities in the country where the homeless have a legal right to shelter, and the District has experienced back-to-back years of record numbers of families entering shelter on nights when the temperature falls below freezing. The city’s shelters have been at capacity for years. and several hundred are now housed in overflow motel rooms paid for by the city.
Currently, almost 1,200 children and over 800 mostly young, single parents are in the care of the city government. Roughly 1,200 single adults are also utilizing nightly shelters paid for by the city.
The city’s rising number of homeless has come to be viewed as a proxy for dozens of seemingly intractable social problems in D.C., from chronic underemployment, low wages and teenage pregnancy to the skyrocketing cost of housing and gentrification.
To make good on a campaign promise to close the city’s dilapidated family homeless shelter, Bowser must also in coming months convince some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods to accept construction of new, smaller homeless shelters — something Bowser, as a council member, opposed for her own ward.