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Opinion

It is time to commit to our homeless neighbors

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Opinion,Op-Eds

Just two days before the end of the District of Columbia's fiscal year, it was reported there could be a surplus of up to $140 million available for next year's budget. The city's fiscal 2013 budget is $7 million underfunded -- which could leave more than 1,400 homeless men, women and families without shelter next spring.

The city, in partnership with agencies like Catholic Charities, funds 1,203 emergency shelter beds for homeless individuals and 158 family units every night, which account for most of the shelter beds in the city. Unless the $7 million gap is funded, these beds would no longer be available for the homeless -- except on nights when temperatures drop below freezing.

To put those numbers in context, there are more than 6,000 homeless adults in the city and more than 1,100 families, including 1,800 kids. Even shelter hotline and transportation services linked to the shelters will be lost, except in cases of extreme cold or heat.

The situation for the homeless, especially families, is already precarious. Families are being turned away even though shelter beds are open, due to budget cuts. According to Department of Human Services Director David Berns, this shortfall will be "virtually catastrophic" for homeless people.

As President of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, each day I see and talk to families and individuals without a home. I talk with men across the street from my office, waiting for the van to go to one of our shelters. I am reminded how easily a medical emergency, an accident or a lost job can turn a life upside down. Not to mention the crippling burden of mental illness, which affects 13 percent of the region's homeless, or the frustrating pain of addiction faced by 15 percent of them.

Every night of the year, Catholic Charities provides 1,010 emergency shelter beds for any adult in need, in partnership with the city. These shelters only meet basic needs -- protection from the weather, hot meals, showers, access to a case manager and, at some locations, a Unity Health Clinic. We raise money to provide staff, services and housing programs to stretch the government partnership further.

The challenges the homeless face are not simple. The emergency shelters and services the city is currently avoiding funding are the starting point for many people who overcome homelessness every year.

In the past, we have all worked together -- government, faith communities, businesses and caring citizens -- to improve the efficacy of services for our homeless neighbors. We can't afford to cut these services now. We should be talking about how we can do more.

As a pastor, I mourn the human costs and the moral dimensions of these budget choices. I realize there are no easy decisions, and I applaud fiscal prudence. But I see the families torn apart, children scarred, lives destroyed and human dignity ravaged by the harsh realities of having nowhere to live because of foreclosure, unemployment, a health crisis, or the crushing weight of mental illness or addiction. We are less, as a community, for waiting to commit to helping the most vulnerable.

As the leader of Catholic Charities and a partner of the city, I also see the hope and promise of a brighter future. I see the rebirth of people who get professional help and those who find support on the path to sobriety. I see young men and women develop marketable skills and find jobs SEmD even in this tough economy. We need our city to invest in these lives.

Msgr. John Enzler is the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington and an ordained priest for almost 40 years.

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