Everyone deserves a safe place to call home

The stock market is experiencing record highs, unemployment numbers are reaching pre-recession levels and the Retailers Association is expecting that we will be spending more on Christmas giving this year -- all signs that the economy is improving. Yet, in the hectic Christmas season it can be easy to lose sight of the sad reality that challenges continue for so many in our communities, where the impact of the great recession continues.

A clear indicator of the enormous need we see at Catholic Charities comes from the annual homeless census which takes place nationally on National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day. Fittingly, the homeless census is taken on the longest night of the year, Dec. 21. Across the country, volunteers spread through city streets looking for the places where homeless men and women spend the night rather than "come in" to a shelter.

We know that the number of people in our communities considered to be homeless is growing dramatically. In fact, the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless tells us that the number of individuals experiencing homelessness has more than doubled since 1990. According to numbers from the 2011 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Continuum of Care point-in-time count, there were 16,664 people experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts.

The census includes single men and women in addition to entire families who are considered to be homeless. While thousands of families are living in homeless shelters across the state, more than 2,000 families in Massachusetts are currently placed in motels because they have nowhere else to be safely housed.

The most invisible victims of the great recession are our children. We know that 28 percent of those in Massachusetts living in poverty are under the age of 18. Sadly, the average age of a person experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts is only 8 years old.

Despite the extra effort made to count everyone without a safe place to rest their heads, the homeless census may miss a large number of the estimated 6,000 unaccompanied youth and young adults not in the care and custody of their parent or legal guardian in Massachusetts without anywhere to call home.

Lori (not her real name), is one such young person. The oldest in a family of five, Lori lived with her parents and younger sisters, and sadly was the victim of her father's abusive behaviour. It was just about a year ago that her mother, concerned about her daughter's safety, and feeling that she had no other options, encouraged Lori to leave home.

At the time, Lori had just graduated from high school, but had no real work skills and just a few hundred dollars to her name. Leaving her family and her hometown behind, Lori had very little support as she tried to start her life anew. She met some young people, couch surfing for awhile. She even was able to get a part time job at a local store. But she grew more isolated and depressed; worrying about the safety of the sisters she left behind.

Eventually Lori found her way to Catholic Charities St. Patrick's Shelter, where she was given a safe place to live and access to the counselling services she needed to help overcome her unfortunate circumstances. Eventually Lori enrolled in community college, found both a better paying job, and an apartment of her own to call home.

Lori is one of the lucky ones.

On behalf of those that are not so lucky, the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless is working to mobilize people across the state to help pass House Bill 135: An Act providing housing and support services for unaccompanied homeless youth. This legislation, once passed, would make possible the creation of supportive housing and case management services for at-risk and homeless youth throughout out the Commonwealth.

We at Catholic Charities have added our support to this legislative effort, knowing that each of us needs and deserves a safe place to call home.

On behalf of all of us at Catholic Charities and those, like Lori, that we are so privileged to serve, thank you for the support you have given us throughout the year, and our best wishes to you and your families for a Blessed Christmas.

Go to www.ccab.org to learn more about our work.

Deborah Kincade Rambo is president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston.