Make this a season of light and hope for the homeless

On Tuesday evening, Jews around the world will gather in homes, synagogues and community centers to kindle the first light on the Chanukah menorah. Light — a symbol of hope and possibility; the Chanukah light — a symbol of rededication and freedom.

As we prepare to celebrate this holiday, some of us are painfully aware that many people throughout the Bay Area live without much hope, without much possibility for living a normal, safe and healthy life. On any given night in San Francisco alone, there are an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people — men, women and children — living on our streets. At some point during this next year, some 24,000 adults and children in San Francisco will experience an episode of homelessness. And despite those almost incomprehensible numbers, there are, on any given night, only 1,500 shelter beds, with a mere 250 extra beds set up for the cold winter months.

These figures are truly a shanda, a public shame for residents of San Francisco and surrounding Bay Area communities. They are a shanda not only because homelessness in a country as wealthy as the one we live in is itself a shanda, but also because we in the Bay Area could and should do better. This area has known a long tradition of compassion and concern for those who live in its midst.

Furthermore, the city government's recent practices of harassing the homeless for sleeping in the park or on the streets is a source of further shame, casting a shadow upon the very soul of San Francisco.

Unfortunately, however, many people misdirect this sense of shame toward the homeless themselves; it is the homeless, not the Jews, who are the most current scapegoats of society.

We scapegoat them by blaming them for their own situation, instead of recognizing that society itself has helped to create homelessness — by dismantling public mental health and drug treatment facilities, and leaving former clients to drift for themselves; by sending men and women off to fight wars, but failing to provide adequate support and resources for them when they return; and by destroying thousands of units of low-income housing without replacing them.

We scapegoat them by looking the other way as we walk down the street. We prefer not to see them, to recognize their humanity, for they are a reminder of our own negligence. They are a reminder of our failure to help provide for the vulnerable among us: the mentally ill, the traumatized veteran, the working people who simply fall between the cracks in the toughest housing market in the world.

As Jews, however, our responsibility is clearly defined by our tradition. We are taught lo ta'amod al dam re'echa — "do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor." This past year alone, 154 homeless people died in the beautiful City by the Bay. The illnesses and the deaths will only increase as the winter grows colder and wetter, and more people slip into poverty because of the changes in the welfare system.

As Jews, we cannot stand idly by. As Jews, we are called upon to act, and to act with rachamim (compassion) and chesed (lovingkindness).

In less than six months, if we do not act quickly enough, 466 units of perfectly good housing on the grounds of the Presidio will be destroyed to the tune of $80 million. Sixty units have already been demolished at a cost of $1 million. Destroying these houses when there is such a tremendous need for low-income housing and when people are living, and dying, on our streets is a shanda, a point of shame for San Francisco and its neighbor communities.

Therefore this Chanukah season, we ask, we implore, that members of the Jewish community, indeed the Jewish community as a whole, join us in rededicating ourselves to the ancient and sacred obligation to care for the vulnerable among us — particularly, at this time — to care and provide for those who are homeless. We call upon all Jews throughout the Bay Area to take a leadership role on this matter, utilizing whatever efforts, power and energy we can to impress upon our elected officials the critical need to provide adequate housing for homeless and low-income people.

We ask that you join us to help make this a season of light — of hope and possibility — for all who live in the beautiful Bay Area, both those of us who are privileged to have homes as well as those of us who do not.