January 23, 2019

Blue tents: Thinking of L.A.’s homeless during Sukkot

Sukkot is the perfect time to make you feel guilty about the homeless.

For most nonobservant Jews, it is the High Holy Day also-ran. It’s “Rocky V.” It’s Gary “Aleppo” Johnson. 

But Sukkot is actually the best — yes, the best — holiday of them all. On Sukkot, we build temporary huts and eat meals in them — outside. It’s “Gilligan’s Island” meets Thanksgiving. It connects you with gratitude, with nature, with friends and family, with great food — and with the all-important, supremely religious concept of empathy.

We were once wanderers, with nothing more than flimsy huts to shelter us. We were once outsiders, with no more protection than a leaky roof. We were once poor and bereft, with no more wealth than those we invited to our table. Walk a mile in another man’s shoes? How about sleeping a night in another man’s shanty?

Every year, we are commanded to celebrate Sukkot, so that we may once again know what it feels like to be strangers, outcasts, homeless.

And you would think, this being 2016 America, the wealthiest and most powerful country that has ever existed on the face of the earth, we wouldn’t even be speaking about homelessness. But how can we not?

Just in the city of Los Angeles, there are more than 28,000 homeless men, women and children. But it’s not the statistics that should shock us. Numbers are abstract.   What should gall us, shame us, guilt us into immediate and sustained action, is what is in front of our eyes: The freeway overpasses that have become human campgrounds. The sidewalks of downtown clogged with people who have no permanent shelter. Median strips at almost every major intersection where grown men beg for nickels. The boardwalk in Venice, a harsh, dangerous home to hundreds.

The blue tents they fashion from hand-me-down tarps are everywhere. Soon, those dilapidated tents will be as much a symbol of L.A. as palm trees and the stars on Hollywood Boulevard. 

What makes this reality so much harsher is how pleasant most of the rest of us have it. It is one thing to point out that the disparity in wealth in this country is almost as large as it was in the late 1920s, before the Great Depression. It’s another to experience it up close: to walk past a man lying face down on the sidewalk three steps before entering an upscale eatery like Gjusta, where a (great) loaf of bread costs $8. To drive past a woman holding a sign asking for food on the way to an Israel fundraiser at a 10,000-square-foot home in the Palisades where two people live — that has an elevator. To park beside a man mining a dumpster for food, then walk to a banquet at the Beverly Hills Hotel at which 100 uneaten desserts go straight into the garbage. 

Sukkot comes not just as an exercise in memory, but as a call to action. And, lucky you, it turns out there is something you can do: Support Proposition HHH.

This question on the Nov. 8 ballot seeks to treat homelessness in the city by providing the homeless with housing, all through the issuance of a $1.2 billion bond. It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised at how long it took politicians to realize that housing was the most effective way to treat homelessness.   

It’s not the end of the problem, but it’s a critical step.

Our reporter Eitan Arom digs into the details of Prop. HHH in our cover story this week. I can count on one finger the number of times I’ve written a column that takes a side on the subject of the same week’s reported cover story. But these are extraordinary times.  

Homelessness is not just a stain on our city, it’s a stain on our souls. It’s a daily reminder of our inhumanity. Driving and walking by these men and women and doing nothing teaches our children the exact opposite lessons we pay for them to learn in religious school: that we are all responsible for one another, that each person is created in the image of God, that the individual contains a universe of potential. Those blue tents are red flags for our hypocrisy.

Feeling guilty? Good. Now go vote.

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.