Jewish Community Relations Councilof San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties


Four Walls and a Roof

October 26, 2016
Posted by: Joe Goldman, Public Affairs and Civic Engagement Manager, San Francisco

Addressing Homelessness & Affordable Housing

Homelessness remains a prominent stain on the “California Dream.” San Francisco alone has 6,500 homeless people, the second-highest in the entire country. The state that’s home to the booming tech and entertainment industries has almost totally failed to use its wealth to address the growing population of people who don’t have anywhere to live.

In San Francisco, tents have sprung up on sidewalks in residential neighborhoods and there’s a ballot initiative to grapple with the proliferation. When propane tanks are being used for heating and cooking in tents next to their homes, many fear for their safety. Never mind the daily misery of finding people sleeping in your driveway or seeing human excrement smeared all over our city, even clogging the subway escalators. Housing anxiety, meanwhile, remains sky high. People who have been a part of the community for years are facing the imminent threat of being priced out. And this affordability crisis is about to be exacerbated by the need to absorb 2 million more people who are expected to move to the Bay Area in the coming years.

People feel hopeless and powerless in trying to provide livable conditions for their homeless neighbors while trying to secure housing for themselves and their loved ones.

As I write this we are in the midst of Sukkot, a week-long Jewish harvest festival during which some people build sukkahs (small huts) and bring their loved ones and even strangers into their sukkahs for meals. The sukkah is a temporary structure, taken down after eight days. Traditionally it is a reminder of the temporary shelter that Jews used during the 40 years of wandering in the desert. But it can also be seen as symbolic of modern-day homeless shelters, many of which provide a bed for one night with no place to store one’s belongings.

Sukkot is very much a housing holiday. At no other time on the Jewish or secular calendars are we so strongly reminded of the precariousness of housing. It’s also a holiday in which we think not just about what we have for ourselves, but what we’re capable of providing for others.

In my native Los Angeles, Sukkot is proving to be an enormous organizing tool for the Jewish community in support of Proposition HHH, which would set aside $1.2 billion to build housing for the homeless. The clergy at University Synagogue, where my family’s belonged for over 45 years, hosted a large advocacy event in support of the ballot initiative on the first night of Sukkot. Homelessness was even the cover story in LA’s Jewish Journal.

The “housing first” approach to both homelessness and our overall housing affordability crisis faces near-universal acceptance among leading advocates on both issues. It’s much harder to treat those with drug addictions and mental health issues when they don’t have a roof over their heads. Cities can’t thrive without socioeconomically diverse communities. Just look at the ongoing success of San Francisco’s Community Housing Partnership, which develops residential properties with services to get formerly-homeless people back on their feet. And a time zone away in Utah, progressives and conservative have joined forces to apply the “housing first” approach, cutting chronic homelessness by a whopping 91%.

There’s also an important lesson on affordable housing happening thousands of miles away in Israel. Once instrumental in absorbing millions of immigrants, the number of public housing options have plummeted over the last few decades. Wealth inequality and limited housing availability are squeezing out young talent and longtime residents from greater Tel Aviv and most other important economic zones in the country. Yet, in a nation that is so strongly politically-polarized, Israel’s Public Housing Forum coalition has partnered with leaders from the far left and right alike to fight for increased transparency, anti-discrimination policies, upkeep, and expanded construction of public housing.

Unfortunately, here in California, NIMBYism keeps getting in the way of proven housing solutions. People refuse to have additional homeless navigation centers, homeless shelters, or multi-family housing built in their neighborhoods. With San Francisco’s famous “progressive vs. moderate”, “knife fight in a phone booth” politics, perhaps we have something to learn from the disparate examples above. After all, the crises are in our backyard and will have to be fixed in our backyard. We must invest in permanent housing that gets people off the streets and sustains our economic vitality. Now is the time to take action!


(Read more of Joe's writing on Medium.)


PHOTO: “Sukkah of the Signs” in Oakland, CA, by Matthew McDermott via Wikimedia Commons