As the recession drags on more people suffer prolonged joblessness. Some of them become homeless. And some of them – more than you might think – are Jews. What does the Jewish community do to help them?
Two weeks ago I wrote a post on homeless Jews. The two key points I made were as follows:
1. Each time I refer someone to a Jewish community agency, they respond by saying they've already tried getting help from that agency to no avail. These Jewish community agencies do not have housing help. They might give a small grant for food assistance or utility assistance, but that's about it.
2. Jewish law mandates helping the poor and that specifically includes housing.
I closed my post with a question: "Are there Jewish resources I don't know about?"
No one seemed to have an answer.
Wednesday and Thursday I spent some time trying to find one. Here is what I learned:
The UJA-Federation of New York funds an agency, Dorot, that helps senior citizens – which it defines as 60-years-old and over – who are facing immediate homelessness or who are already homeless. It has transitional housing, food support and counseling, and it also provides assistance in finding a permanent home.
The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty has two 55-years-old and up Single Room Occupancy buildings in Sea Gate and another project in Queens for families with young children – even though neither the Federation or the Met Council mentioned these to me.
Yet for those poor Jews who are not senior citizens or families with children but who are facing homelessness, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty has no housing. It provides some food support, and will pay utility bills, help fight eviction, and will also, on a case-by-case basis, pay a client’s rent. While the Met Council told me the amount of rent it will pay per client varied by the needs of each client, clients I’ve spoken with told me they were limited to one or two month’s rent per year. A Council spokesperson used an example of two or three months in a phone conversation with me Thursday.
Whichever representation of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty’s rent support policy is accurate, it does not change a key fact – the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, the New York Jewish community's anti-poverty agency, does not have a Jewish homeless shelter / transitional housing for Jews 59-years-old and younger who are not families with dependent children.
I asked the UJA-Federation if it supported a homeless shelter or transitional housing for Jews 59-years-old and younger. The UJA-Federation was unable to provide names of any transitional housing / homeless shelters for the 59-years-old and younger Jewish population that it funds. As I noted above, it did not appear to know about Seagate or the families-with-children housing in Queens.
In other words, except for those very specific exceptions, no such Jewish community homeless shelters exist.
To its credit, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty’s policy is to do everything possible (within its financial restraints and, it seems, with some other caveats) to prevent homelessness from occurring.
This policy may be successful in normal economic times. But in the recession we are currently in, with the rate of joblessness as high as it is and the rate of job creation so low, vulnerable Jews are more likely to fall into homelessness. And when they do, there is no Jewish address to turn to.
All of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty's housing projects in development are for senior citizens. Nothing else – not for kids on the street, families without children, or singles below 55-years-old exists or is in development.
Government-supported homeless shelters are often dangerous. A high percentage of their clients are mentally ill and/or drug addicted. And, even if this were not true, for Jews who keep Shabbat and kashrut, the public system of shelters makes it nearly impossible to be observant.
On top of that, I’m told case workers often refer people to privately funded shelters. These are often much safer than the public shelters. But for Jews, these private shelters come with a problem public shelters do not have – they are Christian-run and often require clients to attend Christian prayer services daily in order to receive a bed.
The New York Jewish Community provides a lot of help, but the help is geared to meet the short term needs of clients, for the person who has no reserves, lost his job, and needs help for a few months until he finds a new job and has a few paychecks under his belt.
As limiting as that profile is, other Jewish communities – even large Jewish communities – provide less.
But at least two Jewish communities do have homeless shelters.
Chicago has the Sarnoff Levin Residence, a project of ARK. And Cleveland has the Hebrew Shelter Home, which has been in existence for more than 100 years. Besides its homeless clients, HSH also serves as housing for meshulochim, traveling charity collectors. They pay a nominal fee for very short term housing. Clients stay on a longer term basis and are not charged.
The Rochester, New York, Jewish community is planning to open a Jewish homeless shelter, as well.
But the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, the New York Jewish Community’s anti-poverty agency, has no plans to open a Jewish homeless shelter, even though the largest population of homeless Jews in North America are its clients.
When I asked the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty why it did not plan on opening a homeless shelter or supporting a private initiative to open one, I was told it was an issue of money. The economy is bad, fundraising is difficult and the government doesn’t fund sectarian programs.
And that’s the truth behind why so few Jewish communities have Jewish homeless shelters and other similar programs.
Jewish community social services agencies seem to function primarily as conduits for government funds.
An elderly person needs housecleaning help? The Jewish agency gets that person accepted to a government program and then arranges housecleaning – often by jobbing out the Jewish person’s case to a non-Jewish agency. I know of cases where this happened and the housecleaners were sent by a Catholic charity. They knew nothing about kosher food rules, which made their kitchen cleaning problematic. And the Jewish agency did nothing to deal with that.
Indeed, I know a Jewish community whose social services agency jobs out almost every service it claims to provide. All it really does is provide a nominally Jewish address to turn to for help. The help that agency provides, however, is largely referrals to government programs and cleaners sent by Franciscan nuns. At one point, many of the Jewish agency’s staff were non-Jews, as well, and that may still be the case.
I also vividly remember a case from 25 years ago. A family's sole provider lost his job. The family still had a home but it had no money for food. The Jewish community social services agency sent the family to the county's welfare office for emergency support. The problem was, that family had no food and the county office was already closed for the upcoming weekend. In desperation, the family started calling rabbis. The first rabbi they reached was Moshe Feller, the head of Chabad in the Upper Midwest. Rabbi Feller immediately sent the family some money to cover them for the weekend, and he also send bags of food.
New York City needs a Jewish homeless shelter. So do most other Jewish communities in North America. These other Jewish communities also need stepped up food support and interventional programs to prevent homelessness from occurring.
Will Jewish communities step up and meet these needs?
Or will Jewish community leaders stand well dressed and comfortable tonight in their often opulent synagogues, while homeless Jews rush to meet curfew at often dangerous shelters provided by others?
Will God absolve these leaders from the vows they made to serve their communities?
Will Kol Nidrei and the fast atone?
Or will God view the Jewish community’s abandonment of the most vulnerable among it as a sin to severe to forgive?