Homeless looks like the rest of us, congregants find

At first glance, the group chattering around the long, food-laden table could have been attending a family reunion. Young and old mingled easily and the aroma of spaghetti marinara and French bread filled the air. Kids ran in and out between the dining area and the playground.

But after the meal, half the diners left for comfortable homes. The other half had no homes to go to.

Thanks to Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City, however, the families had a place to sleep for a week — three green tents set up in the temple's library.

"Homeless looks like the rest of us," said Diana Linn, local director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, a national program that began hosting families in San Mateo County in January. "These are bright people who happen to be in between permanent housing."

Families with young children account for up to 40 percent of America's homeless and are the fastest-growing segment, according to Linn.

Responding to the crisis, Beth Jacob invited homeless families for a week in March and again last month, hosting up to five families from dinner until breakfast, when they left for job hunting, job training or family day care.

The Conservative congregation became the first host synagogue for the IHN in California, and will open its doors to the homeless again next month. While it is the first local synagogue to join IHN's ongoing national effort to host the homeless, other area synagogues are involved in feeding and advocating for the homeless. In addition, Richmond's Reform Temple Beth Hillel has been sheltering families for two weeks every year for eight years through another interfaith program.

Working with Beth Jacob and the IHN, a number of other South Bay synagogues and Jewish organizations are providing volunteers and contributing goods and donations.

Members of the Conservative Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City staff the Beth Jacob kitchen and shelter area Wednesday nights (with two of them staying overnight, giving a night off to Beth Jacob's volunteers, who regularly staffed the kitchen and provided overnight supervision). In addition, fourth-gradersin Michelle Brenner's class at the Jewish Day School of the North Peninsula in Foster City took on the responsibility for getting all the bedding and toiletries donated.

Other groups involved in the volunteer effort included New Bridges, the Reform Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, which helps at a church in the IHN program, and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Women's Alliance.

Other overnight hosts in the area include eight area churches working with IHN. Each host site provides up to five families with a week's food and shelter, along with compassion.

Laura Hadnot, a guest of the network along with two of her three sons, Marcus, 12, and Eric, 15, appreciates the food and the shelter but especially the compassion.

"I'm the last person to ask for help," said Hadnot, a soft-spoken woman in her late 30s. "But when my landlord didn't renew our lease, I had to move into my parents' home. Even working two jobs at 80 hours a week wasn't enough since I don't get child support. My parents put three of us in one bed [and then] I found out about this program."

The program, which was founded in New Jersey in 1986 and became national three years later, now has more than 70,000 volunteers. It began its first state effort in San Mateo and plans to expand to Sacramento, San Jose and Riverside.

On the organization's Web site — www.nihn.org — founder Karen Olson talks about overcoming the Not in My Backyard syndrome, recognizing that the homeless "are hungry not only for food but even more for human warmth and compassion."

Emily Scheinman, coordinator of Beth Jacob's 80 volunteers, along with the overall logistics, expressed empathy for her guests, local families who need to feel they are a part of the community.

"I'm a teacher on leave and if I had to make it on my salary, I'd have to use this program," said Scheinman, the mother of two small children. "These are amazing families overcoming big obstacles that would overwhelm the average person."

Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray of Beth Jacob, a strong supporter of this grassroots IHN movement, said his involvement comes from his "vision of what Judaism is."

"This comes from my sense of the highest level of tzedakah, from supporting those who have fallen and treating people in God's image."

Not all temple members shared the rabbi's vision at first.

"There were hurdles," Ezray admitted, "connected with stereotypes of the homeless. Anything from they've gotten what they deserved to they would be dirty and using our bathrooms.

"At one meeting, as things were getting heated, one of our well-respected temple members, a Holocaust survivor, stood up and said, 'I was homeless after the war and no one took me in.'"

The rabbi smiled.

"Since that meeting, we've conducted two hosting weeks. And we have lots of enthusiastic buy-in."

Blanche Aknin is one temple member who was not initially enthusiastic about Beth Jacob's proposed involvement. Now she serves as a mashgiach in the kitchen during host weeks, ensuring that the guests are treated to kosher meals.

"Originally I was opposed. I didn't know what kind of people they were. But when I learned that these are mostly women and children, I changed my mind," said Aknin as she picked up a Dorito bag and examined it for the proper kosher seal.

"So when one of them brought in a kid with lice, I said to others, 'So what? Your kids have lice, too.'"

Scheinman said that the guests are first screened rigorously, explaining how the hosting process works.

"At night, the guests arrive at 6:30 p.m. to share dinner with the volunteers. After dinner, the volunteers play with the children, giving the moms a much-needed break. In the morning the guests have breakfast, then leave by 7 a.m., many going to the Family Day Center building in Burlingame. There they have Internet access, telephones, voice mail, showers and laundry."

Homeless people need more than just housing and employment, said Linn of IHN. They also need to know there are others who care about them. Linn recalled one little girl in the program who was afraid of dogs. One of the volunteers had a guide dog and the girl fell in love with the animal.

"She got healed of that fear, among others," said Linn. "So many kids feel like what happened is their fault, [thinking], 'If I hadn't gotten sick, then we would not have been kicked out of our apartment,' for example."

Hadnot's oldest son took the opposite approach.

"Eric feels like he has lost his personal time, having to be with me most of the time. He tells me, 'You're at fault. You got us in this position.'"

The attitude of the hosting organization makes a big difference for Hadnot's sons, she said, noting that at some host sites, her children felt they were "looked down on. The boys felt that. In one church, they put 'homeless' on one of the boxes in the kitchen.

"I like the temple a lot, The meals are more home-cooked. They are very homey. There's a warmth there."

Working through the IHN system has been transformational for more than one guest as well as for the volunteers. For Hadnot, she found in Linn the role model she never had while growing up. Now Hadnot intends to go to college and "do what Diana does and work with teenagers."

For volunteer Gilah Abelson, back for the second time with her husband and three sons, it was good for her children to see that the kids seemed to be "regular."

"Certainly we can give up one Shabbat every two months to be here," she said, bustling around the hot kitchen.

Her son Noah, 15, along with his friend Mark, 14, standing nearby waiting for their marching orders, nodded in agreement.

"I enjoyed reaching out and that they were able to trust us as friends by the end of the night," said Noah, his braces flashing. His friend enjoyed the experience so much, he asked if he could come back.

Meanwhile, around the long table set up between Beth Jacob's sanctuary and the library with its three tents, the guest families looked relaxed. One volunteer took a 3-year-old boy out to play on the slides while his mother and father finished dinner. A 9-year-old boy leaped up to throw a football around with Mark and Noah. And at the end of the table, Hadnot stood swaying, humming to Scheinman's baby, giving the coordinator a much-deserved break.

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