Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 5, 2021 / 23 Shevat 5781
Reading Time: Six minutes
The three rules of real estate, goes the old saw, are location, location, location. In many ways, location in the Bible provides necessary context to understand what a particular narrative is trying to communicate. Unfortunately, because we only read the Torah, we don’t always have a mental picture of where a particular episode occurs. Those place descriptions normally lack much detail, presumably because our ancestors knew the locales and description was not needed.
In this week’s parashah of Yitro, the Torah does remind us that b’nei Yisrael, the Israelites, have camped opposite of Mount Sinai. It is there, with our ancestors housed in basic tents, that God will appear to them, and deliver to us and all humanity the Aseret Dibrot, the Ten Speech Acts or Commandments. Let’s be clear. God provides what will become the moral basis of western civilization to a homeless encampment. Now this may be a homeless encampment, but homeless doesn’t have to mean hopeless. It is there that we will be provided a legal basis and structure by which we can build a more permanent settlement in Canaan, the Holy Land. It is there that we will receive a mission and a purpose that will transform this previously oppressed and enslaved people into a light to the nations and a major contributing force to all humanity.
It is this enduring geographical fact that comes to mind whenever I view the heart-crushing homelessness crisis that darkens our city. I am concerned first and foremost for our houseless neighbors. I also deeply commiserate with our business owners downtown. The scattered clusters of tents in any old place harm their attempts to make a living for themselves and their families and the tax base they create—a source of revenue necessary if this city ever wants to live up to its motto of “The City That Works.” This also creates a blight that discourages tourists and residents from visiting downtown. Currently, it doesn’t much feel like the city is working for anyone.
For a long time, there have been a number of local roadblocks to alleviating houselessness. Some of those were built into the law itself, and some were enacted by people who claim to be homeless advocates, but who persistently obstructed decent solutions in favor of the non-existent perfect solution. That has begun to change.
I want to catch you up on some of that movement, but like the lessons of geography, let’s gain some context by referring to the harm reduction argument in drug treatment. This first came to my attention during the AIDS epidemic. In 1988, the Health Omnibus Protection Act made it illegal to distribute syringes. Living in NYC at the time, I could understand the perfect intentions of that law. Addicts were found in every doorway and crack cocaine vials and bent spoons littered the dark corners of subway stations. Drug dependency and addiction was ripping apart the city which was still in the throes of near bankruptcy in 1975 (that story, about how a couple of Jews and the Teacher’s union saved NYC at the last hour, is fascinating). If NY wanted a chance, it made sense to ban syringes. The problem was that the addicts were forced to reuse syringes, which increased the spread of HIV. Not only did they not stop using, but they also became a vector for AIDS that affected both those on the streets and those in apartments. The harm reduction philosophy argued that while it would be better to get people off of drugs, a first step to prevent greater harm by supplying more syringes was necessary. And it worked.
That background is important, because currently, homeless encampments are everywhere. Most lack sanitation or garbage facilities. Few have oversight, and they have exacerbated a rodent problem that our city was already struggling with. Drug use is rampant, with significant presence of heroin and meth. The lack of integration with other agencies also means that it is hard to provide wrap-around services to this population. We need permanent solutions to homelessness, which includes changes to zoning and permit fees (those have seen important adjustments) as well as what a home is.
In the meantime, before our urban leaders determine how to finance those capital-intensive permanent fixes (something they’ve struggled with for decades), we need harm reduction. A new model is now on the table. The city began to palletize homeless tents, raising them off the ground. Unfortunately, their pallets were made from 1/2” plywood that rotted quickly, and rats found it convenient to nest underneath. Cascadia Clusters, with whom we partnered to build some small houses and provided a short-term building site on our campus, has developed a solution that uses more robust lumber to build palettes wrapped in rat-proof fabric atop of which will sit sturdy ice-tents. The price of this model is an achievable $1800 per unit.
The new zoning adjustments allow encampments of up to 20 of these palette villages on faith-based land. This means that Cascadia Clusters and other organizations can also build toilet, cooking and sanitation facilities, all of which will address numerous current problems, while providing security. Cascadia Clusters is interested in using the land where they currently are stationed, next to PJA and the MJCC as a site for 20 such units. The request would be temporary and moderate in nature, with a one or two year lease and with portability a feature of the model. With our communal support, we can convert encampments to kibbutzes, tents into villages.
I can imagine that there will be voices in the community who won’t like this. Most of us understandably experience some sort of NIMBY-ism. What the pandemic has brought home is how our houseless neighbors are already everywhere. Look under the bridge where BHH turns into Bertha and you will see an unplanned encampment. This is not a downtown problem. It is an all-of-us challenge. Without an assortment of plans aimed at harm reduction, as well as more durable solutions, we will all continue to suffer. And of course, the brunt of that pain will fall on “the orphan, the widow and the stranger.” That is the Torah’s phrase for society’s most vulnerable populations, and our mandate to care for them.
In addition to providing immediate relief and harm reduction, it would be symbolically valuable for the Jewish community to step up and permit this land use. If we do so, it will encourage other faith groups to allow similar supportive villages to be built on other faith-based land. Moreover, like our ancestors experienced at Mt. Sinai, it would provide a sense of hope to the homeless “other” who feels invisible and spurned by the rest of society. It would make them feel like like orphans, and more as children of the human family
Is this palletized tent model a perfect solution? No? Can we do it and call it quits? Not really. Permanent, appropriate, plentiful and affordable housing is a societal necessity . This time, however, let’s not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Let’s raise our voices in favor of harm reduction. It’s the right thing to do. And the time is now.
A special thank you to Cascadia Clusters and its many partners, including Tivnu, PJA students and countless other volunteers. It takes a village to make villages for those without.
Shabbat Table Talk
Societal inequality is at nearly a century high, and its repercussions appear on our television screens and social media feeds. Nowhere is this more apparent than when we look at the large number of houseless individuals in our nation. Homelessness is the great equalizer of inequality. It affects women, men and transgender people. People of color and Caucasians. Straight, gay, educated and uneducated. Children and adults. Senior citizens. Jew, Muslim, Christian and atheist. Those with mental challenges and those without. People with addictions and those who are clean. Over years working with the homeless, I have met people of almost any demographic you could imagine. A high school friend and law professor recently contacted me. He noted that a society that allows its citizens to become homeless is “stupid, greedy and insensitive.” The crisis is real, it is now, and it must be dealt with.
Regardless of how you view the proposal I outline in this week’s Oasis Songs, it would be great if you could discuss how to address Portland’s homeless. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Try to imagine realistic and affordable solutions as you approach these difficult questions.
- What must we do in the short term to provide immediate assistance to our houseless neighbors and to let our business centers function?
- Short term solutions are usually just that. Which medium term approaches would help our city develop a more sustainable solution?
- Many of the causes of houselessness are structural and hard to eradicate. How might we seek long—term solutions to eliminate homelessness?
If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.