Our Voices for Dec. 8, 2012

The lessons we can learn from our area’s struggling homeless families offer reasons to peer into some of our own unrealistic and materialistic spending habits during the gift-giving season.

Meeting the strains and pressures of homelessness has forced many families to seek assistance and shelter at Society of St. Vincent de Paul facilities this holiday, said Michael Acaldo, chief executive officer of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

“The need and demand is at an all-time high,” said Acaldo, who has led the agency for 23 years. “To see the need grow is heartbreaking, but what keeps me energetic are the people who volunteer their time and talent to respond to the need.”

Circumstances leading to families’ becoming homeless include losing a job, leaving an abusive relationship, losing a home to foreclosure, eviction from an apartment or mental and chronic health issues.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the homeless population in the U.S. in 2011 was 636,017, and of that, 9,291 were homeless in Louisiana.

Many homeless families with children are not in a position to buy gifts, Acaldo said.

“When you see a 6-foot-5-inch man seeking shelter who is crying because he has no home and doesn’t know how to reach anyone, or the depression on the face of a mother with children who is in a shelter instead of having a home … you see the need and it is heartbreaking, ” Acaldo said.

What many appreciate more during the holiday season, or during any season, is receiving the small things — a hug, a hot meal, a slice of homemade apple pie or having someone sit and listen to them, Acaldo said.

“Sometimes, those of us who are not living in poverty do unrealistic things (during the holiday season) that force us to put things (Xboxes, iPads, smartphones) on our credit cards” to try and make children happy, Acaldo said.

Those choices can lead to financial stress on families who buy into the fast credit, pay-later messages that advertisers promote.

“When (homeless) folks need help with gifts for their children, they don’t care what it is. The most important thing to them is that it is something. Whether that kid gets a baseball or football, it’s no big deal,” Acaldo said.

What children across the board respond to best is love, Acaldo said.

“One thing I can see that’s not different is the love these (homeless) parents and grandparents have for their children,” Acaldo said. “Whether poor or wealthy or not, the best thing parents can give their kids is love.”

The program‘s soup kitchen, feeding programs and its 1,500 area volunteers address families’ needs, while also teaching independence and self-sufficiency. Four housing facilities for men, women and children also provide a hundred beds.

The society’s volunteer pharmacist, Calvin Bajon, who is in his 80s, grew up in poverty and recalled the joy he felt as a boy after receiving an orange from his parents for a holiday gift. “His mom and dad had a home full of love, and that orange made him very, very happy,” Acaldo said.

The battle for parents today and during all seasons of the year is to show their children that they love them through their words and actions and not through flashy, commercial gifts and gadgets.

Chante Dionne Warren is a freelance reporter for The Advocate. She can be reached at chantewriter@hotmail.com