This question has little to do with my usual topics, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to explore it.
Effective earlier this week, when temperatures fall below freezing, homeless people in New York must go to a homeless shelter. Authorities can use force if necessary. Shelters are required to extend hours and provisions are made so that the state will help financially if a particular municipality simply doesn’t have enough beds.
The governor calls this “basic humanity.” Other politicians call it grandstanding with no actual legal weight. I wonder, in the great Catholic tradition of social justice, is this executive order Christian?
Out of the kindness of our hearts, there should be enough beds for anyone who needs one. The fact that the order includes aid for cities that don’t have enough beds is great. At face value, nothing seems particularly wrong morally with this order.
We don’t want people to die out on the streets because they might be too mentally ill or addicted to know what is good for them. Caring for others isn’t always fun and games. You need the stern father as well as the caring mother.
No one wants anyone else to die out in the cold, but is this really the best way to solve this problem?
No, maybe not?
One often neglected aspect of Catholic social justice teaching that seems to be at odd with this good is the idea of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is the idea that the people closest to the problem are the people best suited to solve the problem. That people should show kindness out of the goodness of their hearts, not because the government said so.
Subsidiarity would see this order and ask, “Why don’t shelters have enough beds? Are they already open for longer hours in inclement weather and if not, why not?” It would look at the smaller picture rather than supporting a blanket executive order.
Homeless people who reject shelters often have good reasons. A man interviewed for the video accompanying this article says that the shelters are filthy and are dens of vice. Other homeless people are afraid that someone will steal what few belongings they have. Perhaps instead of forcing more people into the shelters, these issues should be addressed. To me, they sound like issues of manpower. Not enough volunteers to protect the homeless in the shelters and keep the place clean. How do we address that?
My discomfort comes with the idea of people being forced. It’s one thing to leave the doors open for anyone who wants our kindness, but is it really kindness if it’s forced upon someone? Our God doesn’t force Himself upon anyone. He woos us and He’s there when we call.