–Gaudium et Spes, 39
As a young Catholic woman educated in human service design, delivery, and evaluation, I typically approach social problems with an eye of strategy, compassion, and determination. For the first time in my early career I have, however, added a layer of personal connection and relevance to my work. Not only are the groups that I am working with brothers and sisters of the greater universal family, but also they are my peers. Most of the young adults I have worked with this year balance schedules similar to my own, including school, relationships, work, high transportation costs, and family frustrations. The biggest difference between me and my peers that I met during this project is that these are young adults unaccompanied by a guardian or parent and experiencing homelessness.
My responsibilities while performing outreach work and legislative advocacy has included visiting drop-in centers and shelters for young adults to encourage them to share their story in order to call for more action to support them.
The young adults I work with are between the ages of 14 and 24 years old and many have experienced inconsistent and insufficient housing for their entire lives. Thousands of young people in Massachusetts alone are experiencing homelessness as they sleep on couches, in parks, under bridges, in emergency rooms, in shelters, and in one case, behind a dumpster near a restaurant, because it was warm.
Many of them have shared their experiences with me. In these sessions as we channel experience into testimonies, my peers, my friends, my inspirers, whatever you call them, they have opened their souls to me. Many of them have experienced such degrees of physical and emotional abuse through neglect, sexual assault, and violence. Some have grown up watching their parents sell and use illicit drugs and alcohol. More than a third of the population has been abandoned or abused specifically because of their identification as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. Many have participated in risky sexual behavior and drug trafficking as a means to get a “safe” space to sleep for the night or something to eat that day. Even more are supporting younger siblings, finding ways to use any money they make to buy necessities for their siblings.
In their 1986 Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching the US Bishops write; “In pursuit of concrete solutions, all members of the Christian community are called to an ever finer discernment of the hurts and opportunities in the world around them, in order to respond to the most pressing needs and thus build up a more just society” (126). As a Catholic woman concerned with building the Kingdom of God through fighting for a better and more equitable world, I am passionate because my peers, the thousands of unaccompanied youth in Massachusetts, are fighters. Most of the young people I met with are attending community college; they balance class schedules with their shelter schedules. They work tirelessly at minimum wage jobs to support their younger siblings. They have found new families in their fellow youth experiencing homelessness.
What stays with me is the amazing resilience of the human spirit. In each of these encounters with my peers we laughed and joked and even with the moments of anxiety, angst, and sadness there was a spirit of Hope. Pope Francis in his Homily for Palm Sunday tells us, “Please do not let yourselves be robbed of hope! Do not let hope be stolen! The hope that Jesus gives us.” These brother and sisters that I met, even in the midst of immense struggle and abandonment have not given up, have not let their hope be stolen. Because of their witness I will continue to fight for a more just society until it is that we dwell in the place God created where justice abides (Gaudem et Spes, 39).
Led by the Holy See and our Holy Father Pope Francis, let us come together to care first for our neediest and preserve in our diligence to serve!
Samantha Alves is working toward a M.S.W. at Boston College and currently works for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.