The economic crisis of the last few years has impacted all of us. Here in Ahwatukee Foothills we have seen several favorite, locally owned businesses close. We all know someone who has lost a job or is underemployed or someone whose mortgage is upside down.

What may be less noticeable is the changing face of homelessness here in our community. In the last two decades the number of homeless families has doubled nationwide. The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that the United States has the largest number of homeless women and children among industrialized countries. Thirty-four percent of the homeless are families, the largest number since the Great Depression.

At a recent meeting of clergy and lay leaders from several local congregations, our discussion of homelessness reflected the national statistics. While all of the leaders expressed familiarity with homeless individuals seeking assistance in our congregations, the recent change has been a sharp rise in the number of families who no longer have homes.

Family homelessness is a multidimensional problem. Many homeless families are homeless for the first time and both less aware of services available to them and less resilient than those who have been homeless. Often, homeless families are more difficult to identify: Many of them end up double bunking with relatives or friends and conceal their circumstances out of embarrassment. Older children frequently "couch hop" in order to stay in school and shelter services that accept families - such as United Methodist Outreach Ministries' New Day Shelter - are limited and often filled to capacity.

The consequences for homeless children are dire. By age 12, 83 percent of homeless children have witnessed at least one serious violent event. Children exposed to violence are far more likely to become either perpetrators or victims of violent crime. Homeless children are up to four times more likely to have ear and respiratory infections. Nearly half of them have significant problems with depression, anxiety and withdrawal.

Is this a spiritual issue? I am convinced that it is. In the 25th chapter of Matthew, Jesus uses several metaphors to describe the Kingdom of Heaven. The king, he says, gives the kingdom to the people "for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." The people ask the enthroned one when they ever saw him in any such state. The answer is a clear call to ministry, "just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."

We are blessed to live in a community like the Foothills. But our reputation for being an affluent, desirable suburb can be a façade, and sometimes we would rather not see any of the "least of these" among us. But they are here. In addition to those that are homeless, many more are on the brink. Faith and community leaders of the Foothills are working together in an unprecedented way to identify resources in the community as a way of improving our collective response. There is no question that together we are greater than we are separately. Perhaps that is why we are called into community.

• Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.

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