A decade after homeless and destitute people began flooding city streets, religious leaders say they fear that Americans are beginning to turn away from the outstretched hands, numbed by the severity of the problem and confused about how to respond.
A New York Times-CBS News Poll published today shows significant differences in the way people of various age groups view the homeless.
Fifty-five percent of those between 18 and 29 years old say they think most people are so used to seeing the homeless that they don't feel upset by them.
Forty-five percent of respondents between 30 and 44 years old, and 41 percent of those between 45 and 64 years old, agree with that sentiment.
The compassion that in the 1980s led to shelters, soup kitchens and other private efforts to help the victims of bad economic times has not disappeared, they say, but some fear that it is in danger of being overwhelmed by the severity of the problem.
"The daily encounters harden many of us to some degree," says the Rev. Joan B. Campbell. "You do walk past. I've often said, 'What is this doing to me?' " Ms. Campbell, the executive director of the National Council of Churches, lives and works in New York City.
Like other religious leaders, retired New York Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore emphasizes the importance of the work being done by private charities, but he also insists that even the best charitable efforts cannot substitute for effective government action.
In fact, seven out of 10 people who responded to the Times/CBS poll say homelessness is "something the government can do a lot about," rather than a problem "beyond the government's control."
The survey also shows that nearly six in 10 Americans now say they are encountering the homeless in their own communities or on their way to work rather than encountering them only through television or reading.
The Rev. Thomas J. Harvey, executive director of the national coordinating office for local Catholic Charities programs, expresses frustration that many religious organizations are being forced to assume the role of "safety net."
The number of volunteers working in Catholic Charities programs had gone from 23,000 in 1980 to almost 200,000 a decade later, Father Harvey says, but he says this should not be viewed as a satisfactory solution.
"I favor encouraging voluntarism, but it's no substitute for social policy," he says. "I don't think people are into burnout, they're into frustration, because we haven't had a domestic agenda utilizing the best bipartisan thinking."