A reflection wrriten by 2012 JCRC Boston-Haifa Learning Exchange participants Joe Finn, Executive Director of Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance.
Reflecting upon my visit to Israel with JCRC’s Boston-Haifa Learning Exchange, I think of the Hebrew word an acquaintance of mine uses in a very affirming way, “dayenu.” It means “enough for us” or “it would have been sufficient” and is used as a response in a joyous Passover hymn that celebrates all that God has done for the people of God. For example, if God had only brought the people out of Egypt, “dayenu,” it alone would have been sufficient. However, of course, it was much more than that and each act of mercy and justice from God for his people remembered results in the response, “dayenu.”
For the opportunity to visit Israel and the holy sites I had heard of since childhood, dayenu.
For the opportunity to meet new people and experience a culture different from my own, dayenu.
For the opportunity to learn more about the complex geo-political reality that is so critical to our own nation and its foreign policy and how it affects the lives of others, dayenu.
But most important: for the opportunity to see the reality of homelessness in its nascent stages in the City of Haifa and to observe firsthand the very intuitive and compassionate approach of the municipal workers in addressing it, dayenu.
In fact, this experience went beyond my greatest expectations for the trip. Walking the streets of Haifa with a caseworker and seeing the faces of the down and out, the public inebriate, the person living on the street, I realized that it could easily have been any street in any major urban center in the United States. What was even more incredible was seeing that same type of individual living independently in housing awaiting the resources for permanent housing and ongoing treatment.
When Shimrit Hanein and I visited Avi Hakim, the head of the homeless unit for Haifa Municipality, he greeted us, as people did throughout the trip, with food and coffee. Before we spoke of the homeless in Haifa, Avi shared with us a book he was working on recalling the horrors of the Shoah in Greece and its impact upon the Jewish community there. The conversation highlighted an important theme of the trip: the consciousness that memory should shape our present in ways we too often forget, much to the detriment of ourselves and our communities. History lives in the present and shapes the future.
Avi took us to visit the sites where the city houses its increasing population of homeless adults. Their response is intuitive, caring, and effective: housing homeless people in shared apartments; making a caseworker available for them to deal with issues of alcoholism and drug addiction; and assisting those who are able to return to work. With few resources, they are able to move people to housing and stability in a matter of weeks. However, they are feeling the stress of limited resources and lack of housing; they are already starting to think of how they can keep up with demand.
The scene was vaguely familiar and generated memories about the growth of homelessness in the United States from the 1980s to the present. I have witnessed the “emergency” response to homelessness grow from an attempt to keep people off of the street to a massive human service industry providing every service imaginable but doing little to actually end homelessness. Here the concept of memory becomes important. I can remember a time in the United States when there were no emergency shelters because there was no need for them. The rich sense of memory I discovered on the trip to Israel, from the viewpoint of justice, reminds me of my own responsibility to keep the memory of no homeless shelters in America alive as a vision for the future.
As for my new colleagues in Haifa, they should hear that what they are doing is indeed enough. The basic focus on housing and person-to-person assistance is the best they will ever have to offer a population living on the streets or in other inhabitable circumstances. A housing-based response will always be more effective than a mass shelter approach. I look forward to them visiting the United States to examine closely both the best and worst of policy choices and their impact upon those experiencing homelessness. In the meantime, God bless them all and the work they do and if their efforts prevent one person from dying on the street: dayenu.
Joe Finn is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Housing Shelter Alliance. Prior to his role there, he was the Executive Director of Shelter, Inc. in Cambridge. Joe has dedicated the last twenty years to working to homelessness in Massachusetts. Joe is also a City Councilor in Quincy. His participation in the 2012 JCRC Learning Exchange this January was his first trip to Israel.