Yom Kippur Day 5777: “Addressing Homelessness in Olympia: The Need for Values in our Civic Life”

Last November, not long after the high Holidays, I took a risk when I, without prior consultation with the Board, committed our congregation to join with two other downtown faith communities to host a warming center for the homeless during the cold and wet winter months.

I don’t normally eschew process, I’m very process oriented. But the situation was dire, time was short, and when I met with my colleagues and Meg Martin from the IW shelter, we knew we needed to act fast. For as we know that during the winter months while there is a shelter, a permanent shelter, there is no daytime place for people to when the shelter closes. So I said yes, of course we would, and we would work out the details later.

And we did. The TBH took Mondays and Tuesdays and opened up, because Mondays we are closed and Tuesdays are minimal use. (The most inconvenienced group was the Senior Schmooze, which needed to move into the back classrooms for a few months. And this group was probably the most supportive group.) The shelter staff handled the management. There were rules of behavior, and a regular sign in. We set parameters as far as the boundaries of the space that could be used, and we agreed to provide a coffee and tea service for the guests. We were able to hook up cable TV—the wire lying dormant since we agreed to cable service with a bundle when we took on Comcast for our internet provider. Donations rolled in: coffee, tea, sugar, etc. And the people came.

It was amazing. It was an amazing site because of the normalcy evident within. Ultimately, the need that was served was that people just wanted a space. People just wanted to come into that space for the simple, basic reason of just being. Some conversed, some watched TV, some charged their phones, some drank coffee and some just slept—for those who went unsheltered overnight, the warming center became the place for respite, for sleep. Occasionally other service agencies came in to meet with people.

In total, the warming center operated 7:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. every day from November 24-March 31. The average daily number of guests was 130—not all at one time, but who signed in over the course of the day. The peak usage, which happened here, was 179. The warming center was a real success, but an unfortunate success. A success in that it served a real need, unfortunate that it was needed in the first place.

Overall, the warming center went off with minimal incident. Some increased wear and tear on the building, but we have this building, we should share it. We use it for tikkun olam just as we do for our spiritual and ritual needs. And so I thank you for your support in doing this, all of our members and guests who accommodated the warming center, I want to thank our staff, Catherine and Kirsten, who were here on a day to day basis, and who helped an facilitated with the warming center. I am very proud of the fact that we did this.
I tend to reflect on issues of social concern on Yom Kippur day because of the spirit of the haftarah that we just read. The words from Isaiah, which I had us all read, imbued with your own personal spirit of social justice and commitment to communal change. But as I learned from Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism who I studied with earlier this year as part of the Brickner Social Justice Fellowship I am doing this year, that for all his talk, Isaiah was a failure. He was a failure.

Why? Because his railings on did not result in meaningful social change.

So I don’t just want to stand here and say there is a homeless issue in our community. I want to stand here and say that we need to get behind efforts to solve it.

The warming center was not our only experience with homelessness this past year. A few weeks ago during the summer months, people started coming by the Temple and sleeping. This is not uncommon, we’ve always had this as long as we have been in this building, we have individuals who have taken shelter under our overhang, or spend the night.
But over the summer it was more, things started to change.. People started camping out, building structures out of tarps. And also, while in the past people would get up and move on in the morning, people were hanging out all day, in the courtyard and on the front entryway. And there weren’t any problems—I engaged with the folks who were staying here, most people were respectful of the space and each other, setting up guidelines and cleaning up our grounds—the situation began to become somewhat unmanageable. While we wanted to be compassionate, what were are responsibilities to our community and the people that were here?

So we convened a small group was convened to discuss the issue. We talked to other downtown faith communities that were wrestling with these issues. We talked about behavioral covenants, daytime verses nighttime, and specifically our values as a Jewish community. And after talking with people who are deeply engaged in the issue downtown, we decided that we ultimately could not manage the situation and would have to ban camping at the Temple. We were advised, with good advice from people in the know, we would need to go all in, or not at all. We would need to be engaged, monitoring constantly, checking in and aiding, possibly facilitating access to services, but it was something we realized that as a community, as a congregation we did not have the resources to do. So we had to make a difficult decision. We had to put up signs and ultimately say that there was no camping, no trespassing allowed.

And it was a challenge, based on our values and our commitment to tzedakah and tikkun olam. But also realizing that in order to facilitate that tikkun olam we need to do it in a good, effective way. And so while our signs worked, the question still remains, what do we do about the issue of people who are experiencing homelessness in our community.
It is a real struggle for us because we are not just another downtown address trying to mind its small piece of real estate. We are a synagogue, a Jewish community rooted in values and a greater concern. And while we had to make that one decision because it was unsustainable to continue, it becomes our imperative then to work for a solution that is sustainable.

Interfaith Works, of which we are a member, Danny Kadden a member of our community is the Executive Director has done tremendous work on the issue of homelessness in our community, and I just want to share some reflection from Interfaith Works:

The “chaos of homelessness” is well documented, illustrating how quickly issues compound for people the longer they remain on the streets. Sheltered, “chronically homeless” adults – the most highly vulnerable subgroup experiencing homelessness – are inadequately served by existing case management resources in our community.

Because most resources are available only in fixed clinical or treatment settings that require clients to make and keep appointments on a regular or recurring basis, many persons go untreated or are only sporadically and inconsistently served, resulting in continued homelessness, persistent high utilization of emergency medical, mental health and public safety resources, and greater risk of death on the streets. The lack of effectiveness of these case management strategies constitutes a substantial barrier to services.

It’s difficult. We can understand. It’s difficult to navigate when we have means.
We have seen a lot of progress in our community. Our floating emergency shelter that we used to host 2 weeks over the winter is no more, because a more permanent shelter was established right around the corner at First Christian Church. There are many people focused on housing, from Interfaith Works as I mentioned from rapid rehousing through Sidewalk and the Family Support Center, sheltering at Camp Quixote and on. But what is sorely lacking is the ability to access services easily. What we don’t have is a place—a day place—to be when the shelters close.

There is movement on this front. The Community Care Center, sponsored by Providence and including community partners such as is becoming more and more of a reality. There was just an article about it last week in the paper. A housing levy is being discussed to build more affordable housing locally.

These are efforts that we as a congregation need to get behind. Not because it is what we experienced at our building, but because it is expected of us to do.

As a faith community deeply engaged with our civic life, we have a particular voice to bear on issues of common concern. It is no surprise that three faith communities and our local interfaith organization to create the warming center. Because we had the means on the one hand, but because it is part of our spiritual mission to help those in need. We bring to our engagement in civic life a set of values, beliefs and actions that compel us to behave in a particular way and to have particular concerns. We must act on them, and we must preach them and hear from Isaiah.

We have a gift to bring to our community and that is this particular rootedness in tradition, in values, in ideals. And it can come out not only in the work we do in our community, specifically in this case around homelessness, but to bring to bear to our entire civic life here in our community in Olympia. That to bring this idea of being a values based community to bear on our civic life just as we are called upon to be a values based community can be very, very powerful.

That to me is the point of religion as a whole, to orient ourselves towards that which is greater than ourselves. And not just that we answer to a higher authority, however you may define it, but that we have to answer to one another. We have to answer to one another. And I believe that as a community we are stronger when we are rooted in values. That we are not just concerned with what is right in front of us, that we are not just concerned with our own individual concerns, each trying to mark out our own territory. But if we take the larger picture, and apply to that a set of values that we commit to, then that that is tremendous. And that is something that we as faith communities can give to our larger civic life.

In fact, we are starting to talk about this. Starting to talk about this here locally among our faith communities, about bringing certain values to bear upon our civic life, upon our civic discourse. The question is, what are these values? What might we wish to offer? What can we offer to our civic leadership, what set of values that we can root our decision-making in?

And while across faith communities we can have a sense of agreement about what they might be, just thinking today, on this day, Yom Kippur, I look to our tradition, and what values we might be able to offer from our tradition.

And just as we hear from Isaiah echoing to give us this charge, we look to our Torah reading from this afternoon, that we will read later, from the Book of Leviticus, chapter 19, that can give us a guide.

This section in Leviticus that we are going to read is called “The Holiness Code” traditionally and holiness is an infusion of divine spirit, or a means of elevating one’s life beyond the prosaic, the day to day. How do we give our lives meaning? And how can we give our communities meaning? We can see this in the text that we are going to read later. I’ll give you a preview of it right now. And when I read this text, I see the value of mutuality, I see the value of compassion, I see the value of respect and I see the value of inclusion.

Mutuality: we can recognize that we are dependent on one another. In our afternoon Torah reading is that famous line, “love our neighbor as yourself.” But it doesn’t say which neighbor, just the rich neighbor, or the sheltered neighbor or the neighbor with means. It just says, “love your neighbor.” And the people around who are experiencing homelessness are our neighbors. People like to argue when we have this civic discourse that most of the people here are coming from other places, because there are so many services in Olympia. But the data does not bear that out—most are from Thurston County, they are our neighbors. And we have to remember that. We need to bring to bear the value underlying that verse that we live in a state of mutuality with one another.

And, once we identify our neighbor and recognize that we are in a state of mutuality, we need to take care of our neighbors. We need to have compassion. Yes, the verse says “love,” but love in the sense of action. The Torah doesn’t legislate feelings, but action. The Torah is not saying we need to feel a particular way, but we have to act in a particular way. And we have to act with compassion.Also in the Torah reading this afternoon we have the verse, “ When you reap the produce of your land you shall leave unharvested the corners of your field…but leave it for the poor.” Embedded here in the text is the idea of compassion for another, to be able to provide means to another, to be able to provide for another to the extent possible. Built into the fabric of life is sharing with others. Here a corner of the field. In our case, shelter. A place to go.

Compassion is the second value that we find in this text. And we do this without judgment. Each and every person in our community is worthy of and deserving of respect. Leviticus reads, “ Do not pervert the cause of justice, show favor neither to the lowly nor the mighty.” Don’t favor the lowly or the mighty, treat everyone with respect. Everyone is to be treated equally, and do not show favor. If someone comes to us in need, we should not sit in judgment. It doesn’t say, help those except for whomever, or judge those, in this case it is ok. We can’t judge, we shouldn’t judge, and ultimately we know we can’t because Besides, this is impossible to do because we do not know other’s stories. We don’t know each other’s backgrounds. We don’t know who is lowly, or who is mighty. We don’t know, and it shouldn’t matter. We treat everyone with respect.

And inclusion, our fourth value. We want to be sure that everyone is welcome, and not just those with means, not just those with shelter, but everyone who is here is counted. And one of the ways we do this is to make things accessible. In Leviticus we will read, “do not put a stumbling block before the blind. How much more that we shouldn’t put stumbling blocks in front of anyone, or to remove them if we see them. By doing so we create a more inclusive society, in which everyone is welcome. We remove the barriers, we clear the path. What are the barriers? They could be many things. They could be economic barriers. They could be cultural barriers. They could be attitudinal barriers. Remove the barriers, increase accessibility, create inclusion.

Mutuality, compassion, respect, inclusion. Isaiah preached the need to create a better society. Leviticus gives us the tools to do so.

These are good values to hold as individuals. But imagine if we can incorporate these values into our civic life. That decisions are made from our leadership with these values in mind. That decisions are not made out of a utilitarian sense of the most good for the most people, or simple economics, but how well they accord with these values?

We as a congregation, as faith communities, have a unique voice to bear on these issues. We speak the language of faith, of sacred action, of holy community, of serving a greater good. It is time that we not only uphold these commitments in how we engage in our community, but that we challenge our greater community to act in ways that are in accordance with our higher values.

And here, let us make the renewed commitment. We have been touched here by the issue of homelessness in our community. We engaged it in very real ways over this past year. We must continue to live our values and do what we can to make a real difference in our community. Because it is possible. So I chose this year to not talk about an issue that is out there, or global, or even national. I want us to think about the right here, the right now. Where it is immediately possible to make a difference.

After the warming center was over, Meg Martin from the shelter came to Erev Shabbat services one Friday to speak and to make a presentation. She spoke about the warming center and homelessness, she shared stories and data, it was very powerful. And she expressed her thanks to us as a congregation for stepping up and taking on the warming center, and for opening our doors at a time of great need.

She presented us with a plaque picture, signed by guests of the warming center. In the center is a quote that was printed on there (according to Google it is from Theodore Roosevelt, but I haven’t been able to confirm): do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

We know we are not going to solve it all, but from our corner perch here, on the corner of 8th and Washington in downtown Olympia, we are well positioned to do what we can with what we have to make this a better and stronger and more caring, resilient and values based community. That is what we have to offer. So just as we extended ourselves earlier this year with the warming center, and in other ways. Let’s continue that work of opening our doors in every way that we can.

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