levy hands food to two homeless men
Yishai Levy of Holy Land Restaurant delivers meals to homeless men in Berkeley. (Photo/file)

Prophetic book bolsters the case for ‘housing-first’ solution to homelessness

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Shabbat Chazon
Deuteronomy 1:1–3:22
Isaiah 1:1-27

From the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz (this year, July 11), a Jewish fast day commemorating the breach of the walls of Jerusalem, all the Haftarah readings are related to the Hebrew calendar rather than the Torah portion.

There are three Haftarot of warning before Tisha B’Av (Monday evening, July 31) followed by seven Haftarot of consolation. This is how the Jewish people send text messages to each other. This week marks the third and last Haftarah of warning, Shabbat Chazon (the Shabbat of Vision), from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 1:1-27.

The student asked the rabbi, “I read the Haftarah. How can a city lose its way? I can understand a person or a family, but an entire city?”

The rabbi responded, “Let me tell you a Chelm story.”

The Wise Men of Chelm met in the councils of San Francisco in 1990 and argued for seven days and seven nights about what to do about the homeless. A lone voice said, “House them,” and added, quoting Henry David Thoreau, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

But the Wise Men of Chelm announced “Matrix,” and began sweeping the homeless from one neighborhood of the city to another. That did not work.

A decade or so later, the Wise Men of Chelm met again for seven days and seven nights and announced quality-of-life citations. “Yes,” they said, “We will give the homeless tickets for infractions such as urinating in public, loitering or sleeping in the park!” But, said the lone voice, “If they can’t pay, they won’t be eligible for city services?” The courts agreed.

The Wise Men of Chelm met again and came up with “Sit/Lie.” Flop. Others responded with Project Homeless Connect (pretty good) and navigation centers (temporary shelter beds, not long-term homes).

The student asked, “Do you know any new Chelm stories?”

The rabbi replied, “Here is a science fiction Chelm story.”

This planet produces people, but somehow, the culture of the people in some places produces homeless people.

The Wise Men of Chelm from Outer Space (you probably did not see that coming) hovered, again, over the Earth. It had been 1 million years since the last visit. Looking down, they asked, “What does this planet do now? Last time we were here it made lava and steam. Now there is growth and creatures! The apple trees ‘apple,’ the oceans ‘fish,’ but on the whole, this planet ‘peoples.’”

Looking closer at all the major cities in North America — and especially at San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose — they saw thousands and thousands of homeless people. They amended their notes: This planet produces people, but somehow, the culture of the people in some places produces homeless people.

The student looked at the rabbi and said, “This is not funny. Do you know any contemporary teaching?”

“Yes, this is a teaching from Rabbi Daniel Nevins of the Jewish Theological Seminary.”

“What is your vision of a righteous city? This is an important question, because this week is known as Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision, and the vision offered by our prophets is that of a city that has gone astray, abandoning the path of righteousness.

“In our Haftarah, the book of Isaiah opens with the chilling depiction of a ‘faithful city’ (kiryah ne’emanah) that has become distorted into harlotry. What sins does Isaiah associate with such faithlessness? It is not ritual error but ethical failure that he decries. If so, then what would a righteous city look like? Is such a vision within our grasp?”

The student spoke (woke) and said, “This is what Isaiah meant by, ‘Your silver has turned to dross. Your wine is cut with water. ‎Your rulers are rogues and cronies of thieves, every one avid for presents and greedy for gifts; they do not judge the case of the orphan, and the widow’s cause never reaches them.’ Apple trees make apples, our city makes homelessness.”

The rabbi said, “Here is another Isaiah vision: ‘I will restore your judges as of old, and your leaders as of the past. After that you will be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City.’”

The student: “That’s what Thoreau means: ‘There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.’ We solve homelessness by providing homes. How?”

“Housing-first. Look to Bergen County, New Jersey; Arlington, Virginia; and Honolulu, Hawaii. They all use a housing-first method. A better vision.”

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].