“The Kerchief,” an acclaimed story by the brilliant Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon, comes to mind when I think about the more than 44,000 people who are homeless in Los Angeles County, 28,000 of whom live on the streets. Set in the author’s native Galicia in the late 1800s, the story’s narrator is a twelve-year old boy who yearns for his father’s return from a trade fair in a distant city. When the father returns, he brings a gorgeous silk kerchief to the boy’s mother. The boy recalls his mother’s face wrapped in the kerchief as she blesses the Sabbath candles as an image of great beauty, radiance, contentment and peace.
More astonishingly aesthetic scenes follow as the boy dreams at night of walking in the Courts of God, witnessing the many-colored lights of heaven and encountering the Messiah wrapped in rags, sitting among beggars. Later, on the day of his Bar Mitzvah, the boy’s mother gives him her kerchief as a sign of honor. Returning home from the synagogue, the boy sees a beggar sitting in the street, scorned by the townspeople. He hands the kerchief to the beggar who uses it to bind his sores. Fearful of his mother’s scolding as he enters his home without the kerchief, the boy is greeted with love and acceptance.
Agnon’s story comes to mind when I read of efforts by city councils to enact and enforce laws that criminalize homelessness and poverty by making camping on the streets or in public parks illegal or by confiscating the property of homeless people following some limited period of notification. However, unlike Agnon’s story, these efforts do not use aesthetics to tell a tale of morality, love and compassion. Rather, they reveal their framers’ choice of aesthetics over morality.
When business owners complain to elected officials about homeless encampments, people sleeping in their doorways, trash left on the sidewalk, it’s because those things don’t look good, don’t portray the image the business wants to convey to the public. Customers on the way into the business might be inconvenienced or offended by the sleeping body they must step over, the smell, or the debris. When local governments prevent charitable groups from establishing homeless feeding programs in public parks, they cite food safety and public hygiene concerns. Admitting that people in your community will go hungry unless someone else feeds them wouldn’t cultivate the image that well-run cities want to convey.
Certainly, we all want safe, clean, passable, attractive streets and public places. And, yes, homelessness and poverty are unsightly to well-off sensibilities. But let’s be honest. Enforcing anti-camping laws, removing very poor people’s property from them, and outlawing feeding programs in public spaces will not really solve anything. It will only move the phenomenon of homelessness out of sight, to another place. For some, whatever is not seen is no longer a problem. But that’s only a form of denial.
Homelessness in Los Angeles is on the rise. This is nothing short of a scandal, a gaping source of shame. Our response must be far more than criminalizing people who sleep out on the streets because they have nowhere else to go, or confiscating their few possessions because they sit in public view and not in storerooms, lockers, closets and cabinets they don’t have. If we are serious, we would build many more transitional shelters and thousands of units of permanent supportive housing. If we were serious, we would find the resources to do so. If we were serious, we would demand fundamental solutions from our elected officials, not just tepid debates in homeless committees on how to make anti-camping laws a little “less draconian”. If we were serious, we would push for even greater funding for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and for the pioneering efforts of the Home for Good Funders’ Collaborative that seek to place chronically homeless folks in permanent supportive housing.
The beggar in Agnon’s story used the kerchief to bind his wounds. Now is the time to bind wounds and to create solutions. Not to inflict new ones just because it’s expedient.
About the Author: Rabbi Marvin Gross is the CEO of Union Station Homeless Services (www.unionstationhs.org), the San Gabriel Valley’s largest social service agency assisting homeless and very low-income adults and families. He joined the organization in 1995, and has led the agency through an unprecedented period of growth over the past 20 years.