On my walk home from the bus stop every evening, I pass several boarded-up houses. At first glance, they appear to be abandoned--a sign of the current foreclosure crisis.
On some occasions, however, I have noticed several homeless individuals on the front porch. There is a certain irony to a society that at the same time produces homeless people and empty houses.
This problem is not confined to my neighborhood. Nationwide more than one million families lost their home to foreclosure in 2008. The invisible backdrop to the crisis, however, is the millions of Americans who struggle to find affordable rental housing.
Much of the government's focus in this crisis has been on revamping the private housing market. While this is important, it should not be at the cost of neglecting low-income families and individuals. There must be enough rental units at affordable prices, and the market alone will not ensure this happens.
The number of homeless individuals in this country has been generally climbing and, by some estimates, is expected to increase by as much as 800,000 in the next year as the economy continues its slide. Hidden in the statistics is the toll that homelessness takes on families and individuals, particularly children.
God called the people of Israel, through the prophet Isaiah, to "learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1:17). God cares deeply about whether the societies that we create are just and equitable.
As the church, we can play an important role. Mennonite Central Committee staff in Miami, Appalachia and along the Gulf Coast work to ensure that people have access to decent, affordable homes. Some congregations also work at these issues in their local communities. But churches alone cannot adequately address the scope of the problem.
As a society we can do better, and we have the resources to do it. As Congress begins its yearly debate over funding, ask your representative and senators to support adequate funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
In particular, ask them to set aside at least $5 billion annually for the National Housing Trust Fund, which was begun last year to build, rehabilitate and preserve 1.5 million units of housing for the lowest income families over the next decade.
Also ask Congress to support a national "right of first purchase" to allow local governments, tenant organizations and non-profits to preserve at-risk buildings as permanently affordable housing.
Everyone has the right to a safe and decent home. There are houses waiting for people, and people waiting for homes. May we have the vision to lead the way.