One of the most worrying passages in Torah is this: ‘If you take your neighbour’s garment as a pledge, you shall deliver it to him by sundown; For that is his only covering, it is the garment for his skin; Where shall he sleep? And it shall come to pass, when he cries to Me, that I will hear; for I am compassionate.’ (Exodus 22:25-26).
There are many other verses with threats of terrible punishment, but this passage rings true. How poor must someone be that the only thing they can give as a guarantee is their own garment? As a society, we are all responsible and – Torah reminds us – will be held accountable for keeping people in poverty. It is easy to accumulate wealth while others fall behind. As our prophetic tradition reminds us, those who ‘join house to house’ until no others remain will ultimately end up being harshly judged (Isaiah 5:8).
It can be easy to put homeless people into a box, and assume that only certain kinds of people face homelessness. There is an assumption that only those spending the night on the street are homeless, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.
For example, people living in temporary accommodation, in a B&B or on a friend’s sofa are all homeless too.
Finally, there is an assumption that there are no Jewish people among those who are homeless, or even that there are no Jewish people who face discrimination because they receive Housing Benefit. These assumptions are simply not true.
At the Together in Barnet Night Shelter (for which a number of Masorti, Reform, and Liberal synagogues act as venues, working alongside local churches and mosques), we accommodate homeless people from all walks of life and all
backgrounds in the London Borough of Barnet – including people from Jewish families. Our guests experience many problems, such as family breakdown,
mental health crises or unemployment. But what unites them are the structural
problems that have pushed them into homelessness: unaffordable, unstable
private renting, housing benefit cuts and a lack of social housing.
Many have also experienced housing benefit discrimination, which Tzelem and Shelter are campaigning against; us Jews are not immune to this.
‘No DSS’ practices (DSS being a shorthand for those receiving Housing Benefit) exclude those who have state support to help pay the rent from applying to a home. They make their search for a home even harder.
We cannot say with complete certainty that our safe and secure homes will last forever. There is no one type of person who will become homeless. If one person suffers, it is because our society somehow has failed them. Our Jewish tradition reminds us that our ability to feel secure is directly related to the way we treat each other.
If you are a member of a synagogue or a Jewish community, then we call on you to help to reverse these structural problems by, for example, identifying a local housing charity such as Together in Barnet and finding out how the community can help to take action.
υ Elliott Karstadt is a student
rabbi at Leo Baeck College and
chair of Together in Barnet. Dr Margaret Jacobi is rabbi of Birmingham Progressive Synagogue