Thinking about Homelessness in the lead up to Mitzvah Day

I can remember, as a child, we used to sit down for dinner on Friday night and the topic of conversation would frequently turn to a social justice issue. My parents, with their strong social conscience, never avoided the opportunity to discuss any topic that their three children raised. Sometimes the debate would be vigorous and, occasionally, I would try and wind up my sister with an outrageous (well I know it was outrageous now) opinion. Our Friday nights were formative for my world view (and nothing like Friday Night Dinner).

Today, I read an article on the BBC website that discussed the fact that 120,000 children are estimated to be living in the UK with uncertain legal immigration status. As if that was not bad enough they are hugely at risk from being in vulnerable situations, with regards to housing, health, violence, sexual exploitation and  general crime. I also spoke with one local charity who told me that there are more than 1000 children considered to be homeless in Camden alone.

This reminded me of my Friday nights in my safe, warm and loving home. We talked about homelessness a lot in those days when I was a child. It was probably an adolescent awareness of a situation that was far from the idealistic for so many people and one that clearly challenged the comfort of our dinner table. Growing up and leaving the parental home, the problem of homelessness was not a topic that seemed as high on the public agenda. I’ve volunteered in a Christmas shelter and worked in my synagogue collecting goods for the local homelessness charity, but the issue just was not present as visibly as it had been.

We know there’s a constant simmering problem for some people but we have not had it writ large in front of us. I know, I sound ‘sheltered’, maybe naïve – as if successive local authorities and governments had dealt with their housing problem. We know only too well that the social housing shortage has placed even greater pressure on the issue, since private rentals with housing benefit have fallen far short of a satisfactory solution. But I think we have also become callous about the whole subject: “You’ve got a roof over your head”, I hear people say, “why are you classified as homeless?” A question which ignores: the risk from violence, poor conditions, insufficient space for your whole family, temporary nature, inability to afford rent, pending repossession and other factors that determine whether someone is homeless.

If that’s my experience – that the issue seems to be hidden, I imagine it’s the same for at least some of you.

Our society has become callous. We gladly allow the government and local authorities to make the hard decisions, so that we don’t have to. We deceive ourselves into thinking that it’s the cuts that need to be made in order to get the economy back on track. But, I’m not happy with the individual plight of one person or one family being ignored for the benefit of the whole society. I cannot stomach such a utilitarian approach to the allocation of resources. It is my religious tradition that teaches the cry of a solitary person in the face of injustice should stir us and cause us to protest against the shortcomings of our society – a society that sees numbers of homeless people increasing not decreasing.

Who would have thought that in 2012, in a nation such as ours, we would witness increasing homelessness and be able to stomach or ignore such injustice and leave defenceless the vulnerable?

Judaism repeats over and over the duty we must show to the stranger. It holds dear the idea of home, the protection offered by a roof over our heads, the home as a place in which life is nurtured, the space for the dwelling place of God. We, perhaps as much as any minority group, have learnt the meaning of home and homelessness – the hard way. In my family and my wife’s family, it only takes three generations to find nearly everyone living in another country, sometimes thousands of miles from London.

As a Jew, I cannot afford to think that vulnerability is someone else’s problem because my family still remembers it being our problem. But, in case you were thinking ‘not my problem’, just reflect for a moment: if you show indifference to the vulnerable of our society, be prepared for the same callousness to be shown to you. It does not take much: loss of a job, family breakdown, mental health problems, addiction. It does not take much for it to happen to you. Unless you’re happy to be a statistic. The response must be to be outraged for every single individual who lives without a roof over their head or in constant fear of that happening.

This year, The Liberal Jewish Synagogue is supporting the charity ‘Doorstep’ situated near to the Finchley Road Tube as part of their work with Mitzvah Day. We will be collecting foods and other goods outside the O2 Centre Sainsburys on 18th November 2012 to donate to Doorstep and the wonderful work they do. Mitzvah Day is a day on which the Jewish community engages in hands on projects, without fundraising, to support charities and to build stronger communities. It falls far short from a systemic change but it’s a start and it is open to all. Why not get involved?

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