How many homeless did you pass today?

Homeless people (Allan Warren/Wikipedia)
Homeless people (Allan Warren/Wikipedia)

Today I walked, cycled and drove past more than a dozen people sleeping on the streets or in seemingly-vulnerable circumstances. Before I head for home tonight, I will walk past another dozen men, women and young people who may sleep on the street.

Sometimes I stop and talk to homeless people, offer them a hot drink or something to eat. Last week, I stopped at a petrol station in the late evening and met a woman huddled in the doorway. We spoke for a few minutes. She was trying to put together £15 for a hostel for that night. I bought her some hot food and a cuppa and went on my way.

To do nothing flies in the face of Judaism’s ethical and legal tradition.

When we open the Haggadah, the first words we read that are unique to the Seder are ‘ha lach’ma an’ya,’, ‘this is the bread of poverty, let all who are needy come and eat’. There is a direct correlation between the poverty of the Egyptian slavery and Exodus and our outlook on current poverty and suffering. In Torah, we read that we should not turn away from the orphan and the widow. The ethical soul of the Torah is devout in its protection and care for the most vulnerable in our communities because of the biblical stories we read of our enslavement and Exodus and because of our historic experience of vulnerability and persecution.

Because of our slavery we must not enslave, because of our poverty we must not turn a blind eye to poverty. As a community we must find answers for those who find themselves living in insecure housing and on the streets.

The Rambam wrote in his code on charitable giving that the highest level of tzedakah is enabling a person to live self-sufficiently. This is the work of Shelter UK in relation to housing insecurity. Shelter looks to challenge the structural causes that lie at the root of homelessness.

It is not enough to drop a coin in a hat or buy someone coffee.

Our community and those charities with whom we share similar values must partner together to defeat homelessness systemically.

Tzelem: Rabbinic Call for Social and Economic Justice in the UK and Shelter, one of the UK’s leading housing charities, have teamed up to tackle one of the most fixable problems in the housing sector known as ‘No DSS’. ‘No DSS’ is the discriminatory label that letting agents and landlords place on housing adverts to indicate that people who receive housing benefits are ineligible to apply for their property.

Shelter’s research shows almost one-in-three renters who receive housing benefit has experienced this type of discrimination. This equates to hundreds of thousands of people. ‘No DSS’ harms the most vulnerable in our communities disproportionately: those with medical or mental health problems and single parents.

We are bound by Torah law to protect society’s most vulnerable and supporting Shelter’s campaign to end this unjust and potentially unlawful discrimination is a robust response to this crisis.

As you walk home tonight, the rough sleeping you see is just the tip of the iceberg. Behind the visible thousands living on our streets are many more in insecure housing or on the edge of homelessness. We must not walk by these people and ignore their crisis.

As landlords and active members of our community, we must respond in a clear voice with the same words we call out from the Passover seder. This year, we answer the question of how we will work to combat homelessness.

As tradition teaches us: ‘Do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt’ [Exodus/Shemot 22:20].

About the Author
Oliver Spike Joseph is a rabbi at New North London Synagogue in London
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