R. Elysa Gurman spoke up in support of a housing proposal for unhoused people in her area of Santa Clara at a community meeting, March 1, 2023. (Screenshot/YouTube)
R. Elysa Gurman spoke up in support of a housing proposal for unhoused people in her area of Santa Clara at a community meeting, March 1, 2023. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Housing the unhoused: If not now, when? And if not in your neighborhood, where?

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“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

This famous quote by Rabbi Hillel is inscribed on the inside of a ring I wear every day, which I had made on my last trip to Israel. It reminds me to care for myself, care for others, and not be afraid to do the work when it is needed even when it feels uncomfortable.

On March 1, my mom and I attended a community meeting about a proposed interim housing facility for unhoused people in Santa Clara County. Many people attended to share their opposition to the proposal. They spoke out aggressively, from a place of fear.

I asked my mom how it was possible that people could care so little about others. She told me, “They don’t have Jewish values like we do.”

Studies show over and over that the best way to help unhoused people is a housing-first approach. Give them reliable shelter and access to services they need, such as case workers, social workers, health care and employment support. The facility suggested for the corner of Benton Street and Lawrence Expressway in the city of Santa Clara would include all of that.

Those in opposition have a scary image in their minds: people with mental illness, who have little or no income, who are transient and who have different life experiences than they do.

But I fall into all of these categories, and I pose no threat to my neighbors or their children. Right?

Or maybe they do see me — a young person who has moved across four states, is on Medi-Cal and SNAP, has multiple mental illnesses and chronic illnesses, has visited the ER so many times I have passive aggressive opinions on which one is best — as somehow threatening.

Because when I was the first supporter to speak at that community meeting, they interrupted and yelled at me. It was a common occurrence from the opposition, who interrupted and yelled at the meeting’s leaders, elected officials and others who disagreed with them.

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Although I now have more fear of my neighbors than I ever will of unhoused people, I will not let them scare me away.

I will say hineni, “Here I am,” speaking for what I know is right.

And I would rather they spend their time yelling at me, who can handle the hostility and has a roof over my head at night, than at unhoused people who don’t.

Many Jewish values and ideas support the work we are doing.

The mitzvah of bikur cholim leads us to care for the sick and elderly. Research shows that the unhoused community includes a growing percentage of older adults and people with chronic illnesses. The project’s leaders explained that the facility would include mental and physical health resources, and be located just blocks from a hospital.

Supplying people with a roof over their head and preserving their dignity by giving them privacy can also improve their health.

Some community members seemed concerned that the project would increase the number of emergency medical responses in our neighborhood. But isn’t that the entire point of having those services — to use them? Ambulances are not dangerous; they help people get the care they need.

An earlier iteration of this project has already been vetoed in at least one neighborhood. And if it gets vetoed in our neighborhood, it’s just going to go on to the next one, and the next one, and the next one. It will never get built and our unhoused neighbors will remain on the streets.

So why can’t we be the neighborhood that says yes?

If not now, when?

After the March 1 meeting, I came back even stronger. Judaism values kehillah, or community, as well as tzedek, the pursuit of justice. In line with these ideas, I found additional neighbors in support of this proposal and began organizing.

If you are interested in knowing more or getting involved in this project, visit SCHousingAdvocates.org or email [email protected] There will be another community meeting on March 22.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

R. Elysa Gurman
R. Elysa Gurman

R. Elysa Gurman is a Bay Area native who has always had a commitment to social justice. As a teen, she found herself in between housing situations, with no stable place to call home. She has a BA in political science and works on progressive policy and advocacy.