Hidden in Plain Sight: The Dark Secret of Jewish Homelessness

jewish homelessness

Even before 9 a.m., a horde of people already packs the streets of Midtown Manhattan. Many are rushing to the office or to meetings. Others want to get a quick breakfast. A long line of cars and taxis waits impatiently for a light to change; a few drivers are leaning on the horns. You can feel the energy in the air.

But there is another world within this one, and the people who live there are not rushing anywhere. Some are tightly clutching their possessions. Others, sprawled out on cardboard boxes, are sleeping or at least attempting to sleep, despite all the commotion around them. Some sit, quietly and nearly invisible, in the recesses of buildings.

This is the world of homeless New Yorkers. A multitude of them make the streets their home; tens of thousands more live in shelters. Here, as in other regions of the country, “tent cities,” where many take refuge, are becoming the new normal.

Coping with the elements is not easy, and some of these people are obviously suffering from a variety of health problems. Others are victims of violent crime — or they are perpetrators.

City planners and politicians — brilliant people both in and out of government — are trying to figure out a realistic solution to this issue, but so far none has succeeded. Meanwhile, the problem is getting worse nationwide, and human suffering is just one aspect of it.

The homeless population is a major drain on precious financial resources. The areas they inhabit frequently become littered with garbage. And too often they use the streets as bathrooms. (It bears mention that there are very few restrooms available to the public in cities such as New York.) These individuals are living evidence of the squalor, misery and despair that exists even in some of the most prestigious neighborhoods in the U.S.

Speaking recently on a local radio show, former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said, “If you walk through the city in Midtown, you get a sense of slippage. It gives a bad message — a bad feeling — for where the city is.”

Life-Changing Experience

But the problems that cities are trying to deal with in relation to the homeless pale in comparison to those that homeless people experience each day. Todd Murphy understands those from firsthand experience — he lived on the streets for two and a half years.

Writing on the website Quora, he explains what that was like. “You don’t get enough to eat. You’re cold all the time in winter, and at nights in all but the warmest weather. The odds are good that you have a mental illness, caused by your homelessness, and get no treatment for it. ….

“People won’t give you money because they think you’ll spend it on alcohol or because they think you are too lazy to get a job, but no one hires the homeless. You die, on average, 30 years younger than others, … people avoid you.” Murphy also notes that simple issues that most people take for granted such as hygiene and replacing worn-out shoes are a crisis for the homeless.

Numbers Tell the Story

The Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress in December 2018, the latest available, estimated 553,000 people in the U.S. are homeless. About 65% stay in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs, with the remaining 35% in “unsheltered locations,” meaning that they live on the streets, in abandoned buildings, or in other places not suitable for people. These numbers are slightly higher than the year before.

Surprisingly, the problem has eased slightly in New York City, where the number of street-dwelling homeless has declined in each of the last two years — from a high of 3,892 in 2017 to 3,588 in 2019, according to the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS).

The number of homeless people living in city shelters (including women and children), which are often plagued with dangerous living conditions, has been decreasing slightly, dropping from 58,950 in July 2018 to 57,826 in July of this year, according to DHS figures.

jewish homelessness

Worse Than Believed

In December 2018, the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) concluded that homeless individuals are far more likely than the general population to be victims of violent crime and added that violence against them is even worse than believed, since many incidents go unreported.

On October 6, a homeless man on New York’s Lower East Side bludgeoned to death four other homeless men and critically injured another. Just a few days later a homeless man in Kew Gardens randomly attacked a child, leaving him in critical condition.

That so many people have no home in a country as prosperous and generous as America is surprising, but Dr. Shakira A. Kennedy, Assistant Professor at Touro College Graduate School of Social Work, who has expertise in homelessness, told us something even more shocking: A staggering 2.5 million children now experience homelessness each year in America. “This historic high represents one in every 30 children in the United States,” she said.

It’s believed that many more children live with their families, using their vehicles as a home.

There is no such thing as a “typical” homeless person as this “can happen to anyone regardless of race, creed, religion, … etc…,” she adds. Forbes estimates that just over 60% are male. Ages run the gamut from very old to very young.

According to Solutions Services, an organization that offers many services for the homeless, each person’s problem is unique. Nevertheless, certain common causes are evident and one of these is mental illnesses. Dr. Kennedy says that “20%-25% of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness.” By comparison, only 6% of Americans do overall.

There are many other causes of homelessness according to Naftali*, who has worked on various aspects of this problem for more than 20 years, as well as with the homeless themselves. Among those: Family breakups, a severe personal crisis, or domestic violence.

Red Tape

Some people become homeless because they were unable to pay rent and were ineligible for government programs that help low-income people with rent. Subsequently, they were evicted.

Jews are among the homeless, some of them Torah-observant. “Many people in the frum community who get eviction notices don’t look for somebody to fight on their behalf,” says Naftali. “They leave. They don’t know where they are going, but they go. Very possibly they could have delayed eviction by as much as a year just by going to court,” since the housing courts in New York tend to be strongly pro-tenant.

Surprisingly, some people are unaware of the many government and local programs that offer many types of assistance. Others avoid going to government offices because they fear or don’t trust the bureaucracy.

“There is not a sense of great welcome,” in those offices, explains Naftali. “A person can sit there for many hours and still not be helped.”

The Poverty Capital of Jewish America

A study done in 2010 by the UJA found that more poor Jews live in Brooklyn than anywhere else in America. They live at or near the poverty level and include people with large families, the elderly and some immigrants; some of them are at risk for becoming homeless.

Yehuda*, a family man, professional and author who makes time to help the homeless, says there is a related problem.

“In most communities there is a shortage of places where they can stay,” he says. “That’s unfortunate beyond the obvious, because generations of people are growing up without being exposed to this problem and they won’t have empathy for what these people are going through.”

jewish homelessness

Living in the Real World

There appears to be a common theme among some Jewish homeless: They typically lived with an ailing parent, usually a mother, until she passed away. Afterward, unprepared to pay their own rent, they were evicted, ended up in a shelter, and moved to the streets. When that failed, they turned to shuls, where they hoped to find compassion and safety, or rented a garage, or a couch in someone’s home. There are more homeless Jews than we realize. “They live in our communities, walk down the same streets we do, and daven in shul with us,” says Yehuda. “They are too proud to tell anyone they are being evicted, too ashamed to ask anyone for help. Inevitably they end up homeless.

“I’ve asked homeless Jewish people why they didn’t try to get help from their shuls or consult their Rabbis. They said they were too embarrassed to approach them. Imagine the emotional suffering they’re going through.”

Sometimes homelessness occurs suddenly, as in the case of a frum single mother from Crown Heights and her six children who unexpectedly found themselves in a shelter in Manhattan in late August. (An emergency campaign was launched to assist them.)

But more often, the problems that lead to homelessness have been going on for some time. Stan*, a homeless man whom Naftali got to know, experienced serious personal and family problems, turned to alcohol, and ended up on the street.

After speaking with him for some time, Naftali learned that he was Jewish and had a traditional background, although he had lost much of his affiliation. Amazingly, when offered a chance to live in a residence in Sea Gate, he declined. Subsequently, he did move there, reestablished contact with his family, and in some measure brought Yiddishkeit back into his life.

“If we had more apartments, we probably would have discovered more people who, while not obviously Jewish, were in fact Jewish,” he says.

Yehuda, who has taken interest in many homeless individuals, says that speaking with them needs to be done with great sensitivity because, as a group, they are very proud. Moreover, some are mentally ill and their behaviors are unpredictable. The kindly proprietor of one small store learned this the hard way. He agreed to let a homeless person sleep there after hours, but that individual was mentally ill, and, for no valid reason, lashed out at the owner.

Many of the homeless are victims of their own behavior. Rather than going to a shelter, a former musician decided to take up residence outside some stores. He kept a few plastic bags with his possessions close by, and used the street for a bathroom. Business at these stores dropped sharply, as shoppers went elsewhere to avoid him.

One frustrated shopkeeper arranged a scheme with sanitation workers: he would distract the man while the workers would toss his plastic bags into the truck. This individual realized what was happening a moment too late to prevent it, and, seeing all his possessions thrown away, wailed in anguish.

jewish homelessness

Other times, there is a good ending, such as the one involving Jason*. A frum 67-year-old, he hadn’t worked in 20 years, had no marketable skills, no savings, and suffered from mental illness. His mother, who had paid his rent all this time, had recently passed away, leaving him without family, and Jason hadn’t paid rent for six months.

The landlord, initially sympathetic, then had an urgent need for the rental income and could no longer allow him to live in the apartment without paying. It was virtually impossible for Jason to find another residence since he had no income, no record of paying rent, no references, no credit, no assets and no job history.

With Yehuda’s help, Jason got a grant of $6,000, learned to drive a tractor trailor, and found a job as a long-distance driver. Now that he has a job and regular income, Jason has renewed hope for the future. He wants to get married, start a family, and extend his driving over even longer routes.

But few people in Jason’s situation are as lucky. “They will become homeless, and will either live in shuls or disappear, and no one will ever know what happened to them,” Yehuda says. He estimates that at any time there is at least a minyan of frum people living on the streets in his community.

A Little Help Goes a Long Way

Most people who help the homeless give them a coin or buy them a meal. A few, like Yehuda, do much more.

A homeless man he had befriended got through the summer, but when summer ended and unusually cold weather set in, Yehuda worried that living on the street would be life-threatening. He rented an old van, left it in an area where there was no alternate-side parking, and allowed this person to stay there. He even provided necessities and paneled the van to make it more like a real home.

Another person, whom he recognized from shul, had a severely infected ear but was not receiving any medical care. Yehuda arranged for a physician to examine and treat him.

Doing such kindnesses takes a great deal of time and energy, and it is costly, but it can pay off. Yehuda scored a big victory with Jason and numerous smaller victories with other homeless people, giving them the temporary help they so desperately needed.

The Bigger Picture

Some charitable organizations organize drives for homeless children. However, while admirable, this will not resolve their long-term needs or the needs of homeless people in general; these are of a magnitude that only government can address.

Rather than building more shelters, Naftali would like to see more programs that would prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.

One partial solution could be for the city to build prefabricated housing, approved some 10 years ago, on city-owned land. Not only would the cost of these be much lower than conventional housing, but they could be constructed in half the time.

Naftali estimates that 5,000 units could probably be built within a year — possibly providing enough room to keep all women and children off the streets. While not a complete solution, it would make a significant dent in the problem, provide the security (and an address) that would help them find jobs, and be an important step to enable their children to go to school and live normal lives.

jewish homelessness

‘Keep Them Away’

Many average people are repulsed by the homeless. They see them as alcoholics, drug addicts and panhandlers. Walking down subway station stairs, they trip over them and hurry when walking past them. The attitude is, “Keep them away from me.”

“But they fail to see the whole picture,” says Naftali. “Women and children who are homeless because they were fleeing domestic violence or have suffered loss of income, those whose lives were devastated by terrible illness and the massive medical bills that followed, and from other life events that are out of their control. And they need government help.”

But even with such assistance, certain problems would still persist. Very high rent, one of the important causes of homelessness, would still be a problem. Many jobs are still being phased out for a variety of reasons, such as automation, or moved overseas. And a breakdown of family in general society means that many people can no longer rely on what had been a traditional and important support system in their lives. To some extent, the situation on the streets reflects these issues.

“Homelessness is not a new problem,” says Dr. Kennedy. “It’s been around since the 1800s. Thus, we have to change the way we think to make meaningful changes.”

The next time you pass a homeless person, it’s good to keep in mind that at one time this person led a respectable, conventional life, that the homeless are our fellow New Yorkers, and that some are fellow Jews. Rather than just picking up the pace when walking by, maybe it’s better to say a prayer that they be saved from the nightmares they are experiencing, and another prayer that you never know from any of the horrors they are living through.

(*Names have been changed)



Nowhere to Go: One Homeless Orthodox Woman’s Story

By Rafael Hoffman

Just before Sukkos, Rivka Schwartz* was in a city-run homeless shelter when she attempted to take her own life by swallowing all the medication she had in her possession.

Although Mrs. Schwartz has suffered with mental illness for many years, she and her family appear to be ordinary members of the Orthodox community — davening in local shuls and sending their children to typical yeshivos and Bais Yaakov schools.

Mrs. Schwartz is a friendly, intelligent, creative individual in her mid-40s. A close friend who has stood by her through the recent months of acute crisis said that what drove her to this desperate step was chiefly her inability to find a home to live in.

“She literally has nowhere to go,” Mrs. Shterna Fisher* told Hamodia. “Some organizations have been helpful and some have not, but none of them has been able to come up with real options, and the increasing stress on someone who is already in crisis was too much for her to bear.”

Mrs. Schwartz’s predicament began its downward spiral a few months ago when she left home due to a difficult domestic situation. She has minimal family in this country and had not held a job for some time, and with no bank account or job history, her attempts to find an apartment for herself and begin a new life were not successful.

After living with a relative for a short time, the situation proved untenable, and Mrs. Schwartz’s own attempts to gain help through organizations yielded no practical results with many telling her they could only find housing for women with young children. For a set of technical reasons, few other people were able to offer their own homes as a viable option.

About six weeks ago, Mrs. Fisher received a call from Mrs. Schwartz that she had been released from an emergency room in Manhattan, but that she was still feeling unwell and had no place to go.

“You do not know what stress is until you have been sitting on a street corner in Manhattan for several hours with a frum woman who is lying on the sidewalk with nowhere to go, and every frantic call to a community organization is met with a voicemail,” she said.

Mrs. Fisher also lamented that several potential options that emerged for her friend were predicated on her going through an involved bureaucratic process, which was beyond her ability at this point.

“This is a woman with an underlying mental illness in the midst of a severe crisis due to her lack of a viable living arrangement. How can you expect her to fill out pages and pages of paperwork and make all the follow-up calls on her own?” Mrs. Fisher said.

Some friends were able to put together funds to put Mrs. Schwartz up in a hotel for a few weeks, but the expense made this a very short-term solution.

After many hours of calls by Mrs. Fisher and others involved in the matter, Mrs. Schwartz was accepted around Rosh Hashanah time into a respite house operated by a Jewish organization that acts as a transition center for people being discharged from psychiatric hospitals. However, the facility is only designed to provide housing for up to one week. Clients are warned that the center is designed for those who have stable housing options to return to once their stay is over. When Mrs. Schwartz was informed of this, she felt she could no longer remain there. Feeling that it was only a matter of time before she would be back on the street, she panicked and left almost immediately.

“The only options they gave her were a list of city homeless shelters,” said Mrs. Fisher. “There are hundreds and maybe thousands of people sleeping in the subways and on the streets because they are afraid to go to shelters, which are widely known to be unsanitary and unsafe! How is this a real option for a woman from our community?”

On Erev Yom Kippur Mrs. Schwartz moved into a city-run shelter in the East New York section of Brooklyn.

“She told me that she reasoned that at least they would not throw her out, and she took her machzor to daven there, but once she got there she realized how horrible it was. She had to sleep on top of her possessions to prevent them from being stolen, and there were very scary people hovering around her at all times. It was too much for her, and that’s when she decided to swallow her medication.”

jewish homelessness

Mrs. Schwartz survived the overdose and was brought by EMS to the nearest hospital. After a few days there, Mrs. Fisher and another woman visited the shelter to try to claim their friend’s possessions.

“I was there for only an hour and I’m traumatized,” said Mrs. Fisher. “I work in urban, inner-city neighborhoods, so it’s not like I’ve never seen the outside world, but the people in this place are terrifying, including the staff, who would not stop yelling at us and the residents alike.”

Ultimately, a bag of items that Mrs. Fisher and her friend believed did not belong to Mrs. Schwart was produced. They left empty-handed, leaving Mrs. Schwartz’s wallet, vital identification cards and all her other possessions lost in the shelter.

Upon her discharge from the local hospital, Mrs. Schwartz was admitted to a psychiatric facility in Westchester, suffering from severe trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. As this article goes to print, she remains there without a place to go when she is discharged.

Tzvi Gluck, Director of Amudim, told Hamodia that Mrs. Schwartz’s predicament is far from unique, and that the organizations involved in helping those in similar circumstances are stretched beyond their limits.

“Right now, I would say that housing is our biggest problem across the board. It affects teens at risk, abuse cases, those struggling with addiction, everyone,” he said. “Organizations like Ohel and Shalom Task Force are doing the best they can with limited resources, but what they have is much less than the need that is, unfortunately, out there.”

Amudim’s mission focuses primarily on addiction and abuse, but often it finds itself helping others like Mrs. Schwartz, who end up turning to them for help. Mr. Gluck said that his staff has already spent more than 72 hours on Mrs. Schwartz’s case — still with no solution. He confirmed that the challenge is especially acute for women without children under their charge.

“Men tend to have an easier time finding a place to ‘crash,’ and organizations that provide emergency housing give priority to women with young kids for obvious reasons. They just don’t have enough beds to help everybody, and have to make very difficult choices,” he said.

Mr. Gluck said that he had many cases where individuals in crisis sank into drug use or other dangerous and self-destructive choices as a result of ending up in public homeless shelters.

“For a woman without children, it is virtually impossible to find housing, and very often the only option is a shelter that exposes her to a lot of terrible things,” he said. “I had 11 clients, frum women, who were not drug users before, but who all ended up on drugs while living in a shelter.”

One of the Jewish community’s leading options for populations that are vulnerable to homelessness is OHEL.

OHEL maintains apartments dedicated to housing battered women and their children, as well as housing options for men and women suffering from mental illness, and those who have developmental disabilities.

The organization maintains several scattered-site apartments, with 20 beds dedicated to women who are victims of domestic abuse where they can stay for up to three months with an option of a three-month extension if necessary. David Mandel, OHEL’s CEO, told Hamodia that while most of these beds are full, a vacancy can usually be found, and that space concerns make it easier to accommodate one woman than those looking to move with children. Once mental illness or other serious issues are present, however, the admission process into a shelter for battered women can become more time-consuming.

“We usually do have beds, but these are apartments for independent living, and the person moving into these apartments has to be able to function as such. Moreover, we have to maintain relationships with the landlords and neighbors, so if a woman seeking a bed in our scattered-site shelters for battered women also suffers from serious mental illness, this might not be an option for them,” he said.

OHEL also has 270 men and women with mental illness living in group homes and apartments.

The organization does not have emergency admissions and insists on a collaborative process with the applicant to evaluate their needs.

“We work quickly, but we need to understand your circumstances and to see how we can best help you,” said Mr. Mandel.

At present, however, significantly more of these 270 beds are for men with mental illness than for women, which has increasingly led to a shortage of availability for female applicants in the housing program.

“The least-available housing option is for adult women with mental illness. OHEL is now 50 years old, and when we began in 1969 the trend was that our community would keep women with mental illness at home for much longer periods of time than men. The fact that this has changed means that OHEL and others in our field were successful in reducing the stigma of mental illness, but, with that, there has come a much higher demand for housing for women. We are working to create more beds for women, but the system has not kept up with demand, and there are women who have to wait for a lengthy period to get housing,” said Mr. Mandel.

Those waiting for these apartments, Mr. Mandel said, may do so in a psychiatric center or hospital. Others can remain at home or receive outpatient care, but he added with regret that some who are in crisis may end up homeless.

“Frustrated individuals can sometimes ask, ‘How can OHEL allow a person to go to a city homeless shelter?’ We present many options to help people, including our mobile crisis team, which can visit a person virtually anywhere, in their home, or on the street, on a park bench — which we did last week. We have a short-term 7-14 stay option as a means to evaluate how best OHEL can assist the individual. We do have excellent social workers and case managers to help people in difficult situations work through those options, but even those [people] with mental illness are independent adults; they are free to make their own choices and do not always choose the best options,” he said.

Mrs. Fisher feels that finding a solution for desperate situations such as Mrs. Schwartz’s has to take a higher priority in the Orthodox community.

“We truly are a community of so much chessed, but I feel that finding a real way to help these people is a simple case of lo saamod al dam rei’acha [not to be passive when another’s life is at stake].”

(*Names have been changed)