A group of 50 religious leaders, social workers and political representatives gathered in the Davidson Conference Center on Wednesday to recognize the growing issue of homelessness in Los Angeles. Among the attendees, over half a dozen different faiths were represented, allowing for very diverse discussion in a more intimate setting.
“May we and our leaders remember what William Blake once wrote: that to turn a homeless person away is to turn an angel from our door,” said Father James Heft, founder and president of USC’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies during the summit.
The event aimed to bring together leaders of major different religions, according to Heft.
“For too, too long, religious leaders either didn’t talk, or worse yet, were enemies,” Heft said. “And what we did here was I think a wonderful example of what happens when the religions go to their core. They find at that core there is the obligation not only for love, but for justice.”
The keynote speaker of the event was Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who played a role in passing Los Angeles’ Proposition HHH last year, which set aside $1.2 billion to build housing for the homeless.
“I’ve maintained for a significant period of time that the discussion around homelessness, as it began several years back, struck as me being bereft of moral content,” Ridley-Thomas said. “It seemed to me [to] really understand what our charge was to be, we had to dig deeper and not just think this is reducible to a civic crisis but, more profoundly, a moral crisis.”
Ridley-Thomas spoke about his journey from a background in social relations to a master’s degree in religious studies and the profound impact it had on his future.
“It was there that I first began to understand what the work of ethics was about,” RIdley-Thomas said. “One of the courses was called “Poverty: North American Style.” We began to try to understand what the interconnection was between income disparities, the levels to which human beings were subjected to institutional violence from an economic perspective, poverty or impoverishment.”
Los Angeles County’s homeless population has increased 23 percent in the last year, according to the LA Homeless Services Authority.
“The opportunity is now for us to help a lot people,” Ridley-Thomas said. “It is unprecedented, and the whole nation is watching. We have a big job to do, and I believe with the right spirit, the right intentionality, the right purpose, the affirmation of the dignity and the worth of every human being, we can do this work and do it well.”
One of the main purposes of the meeting was to spark discussion to initiate change.
“There’s a lot of good will, but how can we make a difference connecting to one another? It’s not just a problem with them; it’s a problem with all of us,” said Benjamin Henwood, a professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.
He promoted the Housing First approach, which allowed homeless individuals to be placed into permanent housing without any preconditions, as a, “person-centered approach [that] allowed people to work on what they wanted to.”
Ending homeless in Los Angeles is one of USC’s “wicked problems,” according to the Office of the Provost, which creates initiatives that tackle the issue.
“[USC] really [is] a laboratory in how our religious traditions can be part of a solution to the world’s great crises and not part of the problem,” said Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni. “The provost’s initiative brings together the research of the policy side of the issue with what we’re already doing, community service and the religious, spiritual life.”
The meeting also included a panel of two speakers, Emily Martinuik and Sam Randolph, who shared their real-life experience of being homeless, urging for continued advocacy for support of the community.