It was a family emergency that brought me face to face with Orange County’s homeless dilemma. Four of us spent the morning at the Santa Ana Post Office applying for passports. It had taken me months to fill out the forms and gather all the paperwork and find a time and day we could all make the appointment. But when we finally met with the official in charge he declined some of our birth certificates, declaring that they weren’t ‘official’ documents – which meant an immediate trip down Grand Avenue to the County Clerk’s office.

We parked in a below-ground lot and climbed the stairs to the Civic Center. Our kids had never been to the county seat, but my husband and I were familiar with the place. What we weren’t prepared for was the onslaught of humanity sleeping, cooking, playing – living – alongside the government buildings.

I was aware of the growing homeless population, particularly after the economic downturn in 2008-09. But the stark reality was unlike anything I’d imagined. For the first time, I was able to comprehend the moral and human dimensions of the housing issue – and its enormous scale of suffering.

Having experienced homelessness firsthand on several continents, Pope Francis calls Catholics to renewed reflection and effective action about the disgrace of widespread homelessness. For decades, of course, the Catholic Church in the United States has been an advocate for more effective national housing policy. Recently, the Pontifical Commission Justitia et Pax released a major document on housing and homelessness, “What Have You Done to Your Homeless Brother?,” examining the worldwide dimensions of this problem, sharing the universal teaching of the Church, and calling for public action to provide decent, adequate housing, especially for the poor and vulnerable.

In the gospel, the first human problem Jesus faced on earth was a lack of shelter – there was no room in the inn for the Holy Family in Bethlehem. Today we know that in reaching out to the homeless, defending their rights, and working with them for decent housing, we serve the Lord.

Going beyond our donations to Second Harvest Food Bank and Goodwill and our contributions to the Orange County Rescue Mission, we Catholics must join in a sustained and urgent effort to find creative and effective responses to this national tragedy.

So it’s especially heartening to read on p. 6 that Orange County is finally addressing the homeless issue in a positive way by purchasing the old OCTA bus terminal to use as a temporary shelter. This important step acknowledges the unsung work that Mercy House, the Catholic Worker, Catholic Charities and other nonprofit agencies have been doing diligently for many years. Most significantly, it is the first step toward developing real solutions to a heartbreaking issue.