Rabbi Justin David: Making a difference on homelessness
NORTHAMPTON — I went to high school in New York City in the early ’80s, when government policy and housing prices conspired to spill an unprecedented number of people into the street. Homeless individuals, mostly men, set themselves up as semi-permanent islands of misery in the busiest subway stations and on the most heavily trafficked sidewalks. Confronted with this reality, I and my friends took in early lessons of apparent futility.
Sometimes, we gave a little something to someone, knowing that our measly contribution wouldn’t do much good. Other times, overwhelmed by the suffering and poverty of others, we turned away.
Years later, my first job out of college was as a “homeless housing counselor” for a public housing agency. In a Kafkaesque scenario, I was supposed to direct individuals who required housing assistance to programs that would take years to access. But it was an education. I learned that, for each of the individuals and families on the census of the local homeless shelters, there were scores of other people in the “at risk” category: people overdue on their rent and facing eviction, families going house to house, individuals residing with friends in barter arrangements.
And I learned how much work was required to live in poverty. Food stamps, emergency checks to avoid eviction and shut-off notices, welfare, disability, all required wading through complicated forms, notarizations and multiple bus trips to inconvenient sites across formidable distances. The people I actually got to meet in person were noticeably drained as much from the travel and hassle as much as from the stresses of living without a fixed residence. Predictably, I came to understand, directly and explicitly from the people I talked to, how much they dreaded going into shelter.
Once, when I merely informed a young woman that a shelter existed in our county, she declared, “I’d sooner sell myself for sex than go into a shelter.” I had every reason to believe her.
Within the office, I witnessed, and sadly became a part of, the culture of futility. There were many disturbing aspects of this culture, but the impulse to blame the victim stands out in my mind. When I arrived at my job, I was appalled to listen to the ways in which my co-workers demeaned their homeless or at-risk clients.
I invented all kinds of reasons why I wouldn’t fall into the same pattern of behavior: I was socially aware; my job was different than theirs; I trained myself to think differently at a progressive liberal arts college.
But after months of hearing stories of desperation, and being completely unable to meet anybody’s needs, I too began to blame my clients for their misfortunes. I can’t remember if I allowed myself to express my thoughts, but I certainly remember wondering why a single mother of three couldn’t meet her family’s needs on a welfare check.
When I began to study for the rabbinate, one of the things I went searching for was a way out of our culture of futility.
In the Talmud, a compendium whose teachings are anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 years old, I found the statement that a healthy community is one that looks after its poor and provides for everyone’s basic needs. No one should be without what they need to eat, sleep or get by for a couple of days. There should be a food pantry, a cash fund and a trusted system of charitable collections with checks and balances in every municipality. Everyone should give, even those who receive charity, because to give is an ennobling privilege.
Practicing generosity is a sign of our community’s health and integrity, and its belief in itself, that we have organizations which take care of the most vulnerable.
Perhaps the most visible is Hampshire County Friends of Homeless Individuals, which is represented by the frog sculpture in front of First Churches on Main Street. It is run by volunteers. We are local, and although we partner with ServiceNet to operate our shelter, we receive no government funding. Amazingly, the generosity of our community and the skill of our board keep the organization in excellent financial shape despite the rising need each year.
We all expect homelessness to persist. And yet, we do not give in to futility because we have embraced the work to make some kind of difference.
We invite you to come be a part of our work, and not only out of a sense of obligation or altruistic service. Be a part of our work so that you, too, can discover the feeling that our commitment and labor make a difference.
Because it does. You can cook a meal and deliver it to any number of 30 teams who serve meals at our shelter. You can sign up to serve a meal. You can sleep over in the shelter. You can feed the frog by dropping in spare change or even bills (and checks). You can share this essay and tell your friends that here, in this beautiful slice of paradise, there are those who have no home to lay their head — for all kinds of reasons, none of which are worth judging.
And despite the reality that there are and always will be those who are homeless, we can each do something meaningful, regardless of whether we see an end in sight.
Rabbi Justin David leads Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton and is a board member of Hampshire County Friends of Homeless Individuals.