Homeward Bound

ImageConsider this: on any given night in the city of Philadelphia, approximately 4,000 people are homeless, sleeping in shelters or on the streets.  Thousands more live in transitional housing or sub-standard/unfit living conditions. Nearly a quarter of the homeless population is children.

True, some homeless people suffer from issues like substance abuse, but most homeless people are folks just like you or me but who happen to have fallen on hard times: those who are unable to find a job; those who receive inadequate government assistance; those who cannot access affordable housing; those who have no health coverage and have been crippled by the expenses of illness; those who are victims of domestic violence.

This reality has only worsened in our difficult economy, and the so-called “Fiscal Cliff,” a cocktail of tax increases and budget cuts set to take effect next month if Congress does not pass new deficit legislation, threatens to make a bad situation even worse.

Among the many items threatened by the Cliff are programs for millions of homeless
Americans, like federal housing and community development initiatives. If the
Fiscal Cliff cuts take effect, many who are already afflicted could suffer more,
and many more who are at risk could be pushed over the edge.

I am deeply disturbed by these statistics, and by the fact that those figures represent real people not at all unlike you or me.  It is unfathomable to me not to know where I will sleep each night, or whether I am sleeping in a place safe enough that I will wake up the next day.  I cannot imagine the discomfort of sleeping in the street, or the indignity of not being unable to say, “I live here.” I have to believe that all people share this common desire and need for the comfort, security, and dignity of having a home to go to each night.

The voice of our tradition speaks strongly on this issue, emphasizing our collective obligation to provide for others’ welfare, to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are cared for. “There shall be no needy among you,” instructs the Torah, a command that is understood to include acts of personal charity (see Deuteronomy 15:8, for instance) and compulsory giving (see, for instance, Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 8a). A threat to our collective duty to care for our poor is a threat to some of our most basic Jewish commitments.

Indeed, our tradition even goes so far as to say that housing is a basic human right that the community is obligated to provide: the medieval Spanish sage, Rabbi Meir Halevi Abulafiah, argues that the Jewish community is obligated to provide housing for the poor, an argument that, according to Professor Aryeh Cohen, no Jewish authority has ever refuted.  This value can be traced all the way to the prophet Isaiah who, in the Haftarah we read on Yom Kippur morning, argues that God demands we “provide the poor wanderer with shelter.”  Our tradition teaches that everyone is entitled to a roof over his or her head, and that we are obligated to do everything in our power to ensure that the homeless are given adequate shelter.  The statement in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights argues that housing is a basic human right is, in this sense, profoundly Jewish.

I am hopeful that we can embrace this sacred Jewish and human obligation, that the Jewish community can take on leadership roles in addressing the problem of homelessness in our cities, and our collective responsibility to ensure their welfare, especially at this precarious hour in our history.  Will we leave folks, literally, out in the cold?

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