Our Homeless Should Not ‘Wander in the Desert’

October 10, 2019

There are profound parallels between today’s homelessness epidemic and the seven-day Jewish holiday of Sukkot and recalls the ancient Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert. We observe the holiday, in part, by erecting a sukkah, a temporary dwelling or hut that typically has walls of palm fronds and a roof partially open to the sky. We eat our meals in the sukkah, and some even sleep there.

The Torah references Sukkot twice. In the Book of Exodus, Sukkot simply commemorates the harvest, during which farmers in the land of Israel would reside in their sukkot and celebrate the festival. The Book of Leviticus, though, offers a deeper meaning. It recounts the rootlessness of the Israelites after their escape from slavery in Egypt, when they lived in fragile dwellings during decades of wandering in the desert en route to the Promised Land. The sukkah reminds us of those hardships and the fragility of life.

For much of our homeless population, a sukkah would be a step up. Los Angeles has the nation’s second-highest number of homeless — approximately 60,000 — with a staggering 75% unsheltered and living with no roof over their heads every night.

The issue of homelessness triggers impassioned responses both from advocates for those living on the streets as well as from residents and business owners frustrated at the impact of ad-hoc encampments that can blight a neighborhood.

A humanitarian crisis such as this is precisely what the community foundations across the country exist to address.

At a time when the homeless population in many California cities and nationally is rising by double-digit percentages annually, our overextended municipal agencies cannot solve this pressing social issue alone. We need collaborative solutions from all sectors of our communities.

When the Los Angeles City Council in July voted to reinstate a ban on sleeping overnight in vehicles parked on residential streets, it imposed yet another obstacle for homeless Angelenos forced to live in their cars. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the estimated number of those living in their cars is more than 16,000.

That is why Safe Parking L.A.’s launch of IKAR’s Jewish Community Safe Lots program is an encouraging step forward. The nonprofit organization will engage with synagogues throughout the city to provide off-street parking for people living in their vehicles, with security and social service resources. The initiative builds on work combating homelessness that Safe Parking L.A. began with IKAR, a spiritual community noted for its social-justice brand of Judaism.

The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (The Foundation) recently awarded a $300,000 grant to this program because it recognized our homelessness epidemic will not be solved by a single “magic bullet.” We need to explore a range of social innovations like that of Safe Parking L.A.

Why has a Jewish foundation taken such a keen interest in the city’s homeless crisis? We believe those with resources that can help ameliorate this problem must step up, get involved and lead by example. A humanitarian crisis such as this is precisely what the community foundations across the country exist to address; our Foundation’s actions are governed by the Jewish precept of tikkun olam — “healing the world.”

Underscoring the need for innovation beyond the public sector is the slower-than-expected impact of two government initiatives here: Los Angeles County Measure H, which increased sales taxes to generate funds for homeless services; and the city’s Proposition HHH, which earmarked $1.2 billion to build 10,000 housing units for the homeless. In late August, City Controller Ron Galperin released an audit of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority that excoriated the agency for its operational failure to hit minimum performance benchmarks.

Despite these stumbles, there are numerous local bright spots of innovation addressing this daunting problem. In fact, Los Angeles was recently lauded at a national conference on homelessness as being at the forefront of solutions to this crisis, thanks to groundbreaking programs that may not make headlines but which offer genuine promise. These include:

• Brilliant Corners’ Motel Conversion Project. Under provisions of Los Angeles’ 2018 Interim Motel Conversion Ordinance, Brilliant Corners will renovate a mid-city motel to provide housing for dozens of homeless individuals. This is a pilot project; more than 380 local motels have 10,000 rooms that could prospectively become permanent supportive housing — far faster and cheaper than new construction.

• The Shared Family Interim Housing effort of LA Family Housing will purchase and renovate three homes in the San Fernando Valley to provide interim housing for homeless individuals and families, in neighborhoods with schools, parks, supportive services and a sense of community — all critical to minimizing the disruptive impact of homelessness on children.

• The People Concern’s Scalable Permanent Supportive Housing initiative is in partnership with FlyawayHomes. The program will leverage private investment dollars and modular-building techniques to reduce the time and cost to develop housing. Their ambitious goal is 10 to 15 facilities within two years to house up to 300 homeless individuals.

Each of these initiatives — all supported by Foundation grants totaling $600,000 — demonstrates bold thinking but also another key element: scalability. Great programs — those that can make a real difference and integrate the efforts of public-sector and private solution providers — require the ability to build upon their successes. Because they are testing new approaches, they must not be afraid to try and fail … and learn from that failure as they try again.

Homelessness is a complex, large-scale problem requiring bold interventions from organizations such as those highlighted above, in addition to and in partnership with the public sectors in cities across the nation. The success of these efforts may encourage other funders and community leaders to work together to improve circumstances for these modern-day wanderers and to make Los Angeles a better place for all of us.

Marvin I. Schotland is president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.

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