Ben Carson as Home Maker

Millions of hard-pressed Americans are in desperate need of housing. Ben Carson is now Trump's point man for their needs. On the face of it, this doesn't bode well for the un-housed and ill-housed. It isn't that he hasn't witnessed the wretched effects of crowded, dangerous or absent housing, though he didn't live in public projects as some outlets erroneous reported. He's no doubt aware. The stumbling block is that he hasn't shown that he believes in the cause.

Carson's approach to social problem is basically boot-strap appeals to emulate what he sees as his personal success as a self motivator. He has for decades lived in a world where a housing crisis means the loss of an ocean shore view or a fourth bedroom. So far as I can tell, he's made no serious effort to understand the devastation of gentrification, served on no projects to promote affordable housing, nor has spent weekends installing floor boards for Habitat for Humanity. He's not inclined toward self-help or government aided solutions. That's not what he cares about. He cares about people getting back on their own feet and helping themselves.

In short, he doesn't exude the "spirit" that Geno Baroni had. Msgr. Baroni, who diied 32 years ago, became the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the highest ranking a priest has ever attained in a presidential administration. He was a street-smart urban pastor who sought justice and sustenance for people in dire need of those basics -- food, clothing education, protection, dignified work, medical care and housing -- that were elevated as essential human rights by Catholic Social Teaching. Not extras or options. Necessities. That presumed a spirit of common good, responsibility for upholding promises to provide those needs, and an opening of the heart in acts and words of self-less generosity.

Baroni became a legend for immersing himself in economically and racially suffering communities and starting movements to correct wrongs. Housing for needy people was his passionate objective. He'd grown up in low income Italian immigrant neighborhoods; that was his springboard to embracing a wide variety of ethnic and racial groups, both to celebrate their ethnicity and rally them behind programs to eradicate bias and deprivation. He became a reluctant hero among those who saw in him an advocate with ability to move some government levers on their behalf. He worked tirelessly to coalesce money and labor to build housing units in renewed, livable neighborhoods. They have by now grown old. Many have crumbled or linger in serious disrepair.

The point is that in order for people to obtain what they need, someone, ideally many, have to care. That's a matter of spirit rather than a contrived or public relations political gambit. It has to come from within, the way it did for Msgr. Baroni. His daily walk with downtrodden people and his fiight against poverty were integrated with his zeal for providing good living spaces. His commitment symbolized the spirituality that swept many religious and non-religious people into a willingness to give themselves to wider causes beyond their own self interests. 

In a 1972 speech reported by the Washington Post, Baroni warned that social unrest would continue to grow if more adequate housing wasn't built. "'We know how many houses we need, so why don't we built them?" he asked."Why not reconvert Mack Truck and Boeing Aircraft and build houses, not tanks and fighters?"

That spirit either receded or was ignored. We are far from that place now where housing those who are out in the hot or cold is deemed an emergency. It is a walled off disgrace we do out utmost to avoid.

Ben Carson accepted the nomination for what it was: a perk of loyalty from a man who builds castles for the rich. It is fairly save to say that Trump has no urgency to fire up HUD for a major initiative to erect affordable housing or to refurbish scores of buildings for the poor. HUD seems destined to remain on the back burner with the possible exception of its usefulness in lining the pockets of developers. Carson therefore can be expected to accept the favor of recognition  with a caretaker's assumptions, required to do little for the poor classes beyond exhorting them to do better. I wish he could have spent a day in the presence of Geno Baroni.




Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here