America’s Creative Capital as “Ground Zero” for the Homeless

June 4, 2009
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Stephen Julius Stein

Yesterday at one of our food pantries, the 18 year-old teen, with a beauty befitting a star on “90210,” lay against the stone wall, her boyfriend comforting her as a case manager phoned 911, and I offered words of support to a dehydrated, vomiting, two-months-pregnant homeless woman. Just two days earlier, a 59-year-old former actress, model, and realtor came to my office and confessed that without a new job in the coming month she would lose her apartment and find herself on the street. An e-mail from another congregant asked for help for a young homeless couple that ended up at their door with only $13 and no place to go: “Rabbi, we’ve had them stay at our house for a few days but who can help them with medical and job-training needs?” Last fall, the ten-year-old boy handing a grocery bag to one of our clients was surprised to hear the homeless man wish him “Shana tovah,” realizing that the poor in our neighborhood also include the Jewish indigent. Another congregant, along with his three sons, was handing out food to the homeless, only to encounter his former friend and hair stylist, a man who artfully coiffed the heads of Oscar winners, now standing in line, ravaged by disease, living on the street, with no job and no medical care.

Here in the City of Angels, “the creative capital of the world,” are some of the most opulent mansions; but when every shelter bed is full, 75,000 men, women, and children sleep on a sidewalk, in a cardboard box, under a tree, or if they’re really fortunate — in the back seat of a car. Over twenty years ago our synagogue — with resources and the mandate of our tradition — began to address this overwhelming tragedy that unfolds every day in our city and on the doorsteps of our historic sanctuary.

In 1988, congregational leaders of Wilshire Boulevard Temple partnered with five neighborhood churches to form Hope-Net, a social services agency. For the economically poor in our area, Hope-Net food pantries and meal programs are the primary sources of emergency food. In addition, we’ve launched Hope-Net West Apartments, a building of close to twenty units for low-income families. A thrift store was also created to help supply high-quality, low-cost clothing, furniture, and household goods to those in need. As our Sunday morning food pantry clientele grew and needs for health services became evident, we partnered with Queens Care, a faith-based organization providing accessible healthcare for uninsured and low-income individuals and families residing in Los Angeles County. 

To maximize the difference we could make in the City of Angels, we needed to pursue both “transactional” and “transformative” acts of tikkun olam. A hungry person receiving a bag of food is transactional, an important “quick fix” for a serious problem. But now we’re also engaged in transformative change: building relationships with other communities and pressing elected officials to institute significant institutional, governmental progress for those most in need. Like other Jewish congregations, we are actively involved in “Congregation-Based Community Organizing” (CBCO, see Sh’ma issue January 2007, and have formed a working partnership with an African American Catholic church in South-Central Los Angeles.

Together, we’re researching the money trail from Washington and Sacramento to Los Angeles, learning about “board and care” facilities  where families in homes become qualified to house the mentally ill who are homeless; we’re exploring how to repurpose foreclosed homes into safe havens for those most susceptible to violence and illness of all sorts. The path we are on is both challenging and sacred. We know we are doing what we can as a community to observe the mitzvah to care for the ger, the yatom, the almanah, the stranger, orphan, and widow — those most vulnerable in our society. In this way we pray and work to transform our city, in hopes that in Hollywood, the only true darkness will be found in the theatres or in the nighttime sky.

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Stephen Julius Stein is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where he coordinates its tikkun olam programming and serves as founding director of its Center for Religious Inquiry. Stein has written for the Los Angeles Times and the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, among other publications.

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