Our moral obligation to be a voice for the homeless

Apathy — noun; absence or suppression of passion, emotion or excitement.
May 27, 2015

Apathy —  noun; absence or suppression of passion, emotion or excitement.

I write this with a broken heart. I serve many roles in the community, including that of a county-appointed commissioner to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Today I write not as a commissioner — I do not speak for the commission — but for myself, a rabbi who sees the yawning chasm between the golden dreams of what our city could be and the iron-hard realities of what our city is. 

The other night I sat in the commission hearing during which we released the homelessness count for Los Angeles County. The numbers are shameful. Homelessness is up 12 percent across the county in just two years. Veteran homelessness has remained relatively flat, despite the millions of dollars poured into the region by the federal government. The number of individuals taking refuge in tents, vehicles and other makeshift shelters climbed 85 percent. Skid Row used to be the center of homelessness in America; now it, too, has replicated the ubiquitous model of urban sprawl with new subdivisions cropping up across the county. There are now as many homeless men, women and children in our area as the total capacities of Staples Center, The Forum and Pauley Pavilion combined

Homelessness is terminal in Los Angeles. You can be robbed, raped, assaulted or even murdered. You live in constant fear of others on the street and of the authorities. Leundeu Keunang and Brendon Glenn, two homeless men, were fatally shot by officers during the last two months. Our county is in a state of crisis.

Whatever you feel about adults who are homeless, you can never say that a child would choose to be born to a mother who is homeless. Eric Rice, an associate professor at USC, has found that 42 percent of youths who experience homelessness were in the foster care system, and 27 percent were gay, lesbian or bisexual, as illustrated by the story of the 16-year-old girl who was booted to the street because her parents found the love note she wrote to her girlfriend. He writes, “More upsetting is that 50 percent reported being abused by their families, and 44 percent reported being kicked out of their home, forcing them into homelessness at some point.” Statewide, there are more than half a million children who are homeless. Youth homelessness leads to dropping out of high school, underachievement and incarceration. We are 48th in the nation in the extent of child homelessness, and we are 49th in state planning. We are not only near the bottom, we are planning to go even lower. 

I know, however, that there is a monumental effort by activists who are trying to house those without shelter. The good news in this very dark time is that Los Angeles has invested more resources than ever in ending homelessness. There is a coordinated entry system that seeks to align priorities between governmental and nonprofit agencies. There are huge efforts to provide vouchers for people who are homeless in order to rehouse them rapidly. There is intense focus on the Housing First model, in which those who have been on the street the longest and have debilitating conditions are given apartments with wrap-around social supports. But as these numbers show, the problem is getting worse, not better.

Have we failed? 

Yes, but not because we aren’t building shelters. Our shameful failure is to see homelessness as a unique problem, something that can be fixed through building a larger system of shelters. What this moment calls for, however, is a radical shift in our thinking. Homelessness is a symptom of a greater disease, not the disease itself. Homelessness is an indicator of our nation’s lack of moral strength to deal with poverty.

We live in a world that blames the poor for their poverty, the homeless for their sluggishness and their lack of will. We are trained into apathy by the stoic notion that sympathy for the poor is an unwise passion that must be purged from our consciousness. We have internalized the dark counsel of Nietzsche, who excoriates the weak by framing them as tricksters who try to unseat the powerful through their sheer meekness. We live in a land that has contempt for the poor. They speak as if poverty is unrelated to sickness. They speak as if poverty is unrelated to old age. They speak as if poverty is unrelated to the despair of our leaders. They speak as if poverty is unrelated to new immigrants. They speak as if poverty is the fault of the poor, who are taking advantage of the rest of society. We listen to the dark voice that says to us, “Rid yourself of your liberal guilt and your bleeding heart. This is not your problem. Mish zich nisht arein — ‘do not get involved.’ ”

Do we not remember as Jews that we once knew what it was to lay out our necks under the heels of power? Are we so quick to embrace cultural amnesia that we have forgotten that we were once a homeless nation? How has the foreign ethic of apathy seeped so deeply into our collective souls? Our Jewish understanding of the world does not come from secular liberalism. It comes from the prophets. When we hear the voice of apathy emerge, we must remember the other voice that cries out through millennia: 

“Listen to this, you who devour the needy, annihilating the poor of the land, saying, ‘If only the new moon were over, so that we could sell grain; the Sabbath, so that we could offer wheat for sale,’ using an ephah that is too small and shekel that is too big, tilting a dishonest scale, and selling grain refuse as grain! We will buy the poor for silver, the need for a pair for sandals. The Lord swears by the pride of Jacob, ‘I will never forget any of their doings.’ Shall not the Earth shake for this …?” (Amos 8:4-8)

We must be proud as Jews that our greats, our statesmen and our prophets saw life through the eyes of the oppressed and spoke with anger and thundered against those who had become so hard of heart that they begrudged the poor. We are the people of the prophets and the children of the prophets. Shall we not take up their call to embody the Divine concern for justice? Shall we not shake the Earth? 

What makes for a great city? Is it its sunny beaches and rolling hills? Is it the heights of its skyscrapers or the extent of its art collection? No. It is our ability to let all who are hungry, eat; all who need a bed, a place to rest; all who need refuge, a place to call home. We must go to sleep tonight dreaming of a better tomorrow, and we must wake up in the morning to pursue those dreams. The only way to solve the problem of homelessness is to put the blaring light of justice on our collective shame and draw together in harmony the voices of our city to say enough is enough! We must sing out from the chambers of City Hall. Sing out from the pews and from the shelters. We must sing out from office buildings, the hospitals and the nonprofit agencies. No longer can we be fettered by the chains of our apathy. No longer can we say that what happens in Venice or on Skid Row is not my problem. No longer can we despair. We must put our shoulder to the wheel and focus our energy.  

Remember the words of Rabbi Hayim of Brisk, who said to be a rabbi is to “redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone … protect the poor and to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor.” Speak to your congregations, move the Earth. The time for your leadership is now. We need more funding from the city to be allocated to homelessness services. Speak to your councilmember. We need to pass legislation that restores funding from the state to build more affordable housing. Speak to your state representative. We need more communities in this fight. Speak to them and they will listen. 

To end homelessness, we need to heed the prophetic call to stem the flow of families falling into poverty and slipping through the bottom of the safety net. We need the strength of all of our hands to lift this very heavy burden. My teacher Rabbi Harold Schulweis taught me a poignant story: There was a certain Jew in Sodom and Gomorrah who preached against the injustices found there. For his troubles, he was mocked by all who knew him. “Why do you break your heart speaking to these people who are resolved not to change?” He answered, “I do not do this for their sake alone. I do it for my own sanity.” 

We must all be a sane voice in an insane world, if not for the sake of the needy, then for our own.

Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas is associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and founder of Netiya, a faith-based network that advances urban agriculture in synagogues, schools and nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles.

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