Homeless advocates at synagogue search for solutions

The homeless usually have one place where they're welcome — under the rug.

But determined to stop sweeping the problem out of sight, members of Congregation Shomrei Torah's social action committee organized a recent Jewish community forum at the Santa Rosa synagogue.

"There's nobody who speaks for these people and as a result, they're pushed around more than any other group in the United States," said Stephen Harper, chair of the Shomrei Torah committee.

"In Santa Rosa, over half the homeless people are children. We feel they have to have a spokesperson."

"We feel that with a personal involvement, a hands-on involvement, we can change this very obscene situation. We're not looking for anybody else to change it. We as Jews and as human beings have to change it."

Nearly 100 people gathered at the synagogue to discuss strategies for assisting the homeless and recruiting volunteers. Tula Jaffe, coordinator of the Sonoma County Task Force on the Homeless, emphasized the Jewish obligation to help the needy.

"We have to think more and act more," she said. "We're responsible for tikkun olam [repairing the world]."

As long as 1 percent of Americans control more than 80 percent of the country's wealth, the problem of homelessness will continue to grow, she maintained.

"We must change the system that produces homelessness."

John Records, director of Petaluma's Center for Homeless Children and their Families (COTS) guided the audience through a number of true stories about how people became homeless.

One was an Apollo space flight engineer who lost it all, became an alcoholic and ended up in a local shelter. Another was a young woman who was continually raped by her father as a girl and soon turned to prostitution and drugs.

Melodie Perez, an employment counselor for Vietnam Veterans of California in Santa Rosa, told the story of her own odyssey into homelessness and recovery.

She discussed her adoption, her troubled youth as a half-white, half-Native American living on a reservation and her failure to navigate in the white world. She survived an abusive marriage, drugs, alcohol and a life sleeping in abandoned cars.

Finally, she married a man whose life paralleled hers. Then she got busted for selling drugs, gave birth in jail and found hope when she was released to the Vietnam Veterans House.

While there, she "learned how to live life on life's terms," she said.

She turned her life around and is now giving to the homeless the things she wished someone had given her: love and attention.

"If that isn't a bang for your buck, I don't know what is," she said.

Also offering solutions, Michael De Vore, executive director of Santa Rosa's SOME (Service, Outreach, Motivation, and Empowerment), discussed paths for moving out of homelessness, emphasizing the importance of lending a hand.

"Neighbors would help neighbors during the Depression," he said. "Today help will come from us, not President Clinton, not the state, but us. We can't get overwhelmed by our own sense of despair. We must join task forces."

Harper agreed. Discussing his congregation's involvement in homeless efforts after the forum, he said a number of congregants are involved in Santa Rosa's Family Connection, giving a one-year commitment to assisting families moving out of homeless shelters.

"We don't give them money, we don't give them shelter, we teach them life skills," he said, adding that the program has a 90 percent success rate in keeping formerly homeless families off the streets.

In addition, he said congregants organize monthly birthday parties at a Sonoma County homeless shelter and cook dinner twice monthly at the Family Support Center.

But more is needed, he said. "We do real well at giving homeless people a meal or a bed for the night, but we don't have anything to get them back on feet."

The forum was co-sponsored by the Jewish Day School of Sonoma County, the Jewish Community Agency of Sonoma County, Jewish Family and Children's Services and Congregations Beth Ami in Santa Rosa, B'nai Israel in Petaluma, Ner Shalom in Cotati and Shir Shalom in Sonoma.