The effect was incongruous: the haunting sound of a lone oboe at midnight on Christmas Eve playing "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer." The setting was incongruous as well: Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., where dozens of homeless people live, just across Pennsylvania Avenue in full view of the White House. The "God bless yous" flowed that night as we shared bread and cookies with the park residents and those vigiling on their behalf from the abundance of the Sojourners Community celebration we had just left.
That same month, December 1991, the U.S. Conference of Mayors released its report on hunger and homelessness in urban America, based on a 28-city survey. According to the report, in 1991 requests for emergency food assistance increased an average of 26 percent, with an estimated 17 percent of requests going unmet; some cities experienced an increase of more than 100 percent. More than two-thirds of those requesting emergency food assistance were families with children. Requests for emergency shelter increased by an average of 13 percent, with 15 percent of the need estimated to have gone unmet.
The statistics bear out what anyone living in urban America--indeed, virtually anywhere in America--already knows. Hunger and homelessness have reached crisis proportions. For most Americans, the lingering images of last Christmas include more than the usual angels and stars. For me, the faces of the desperate remain: the man at the corner of Irving and 11th Streets, washing windshields for change when the light turns red; the one with cup in hand, rocking on a steam grate outside Union Station, singing strains of "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire"; the woman outside a neighborhood restaurant on Christmas Eve, waiting for the leftovers.