Dalya Lessem Elnecave D’var Torah on homelessness

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On Saturday, June 4, Dalya Lessem Elnecave, a youth organizer with JCUA, delivered the following D’var Torah at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago.

Shabbat Shalom. If I could see a show of hands, how many of you all have moved at least once in your life? Now keep your hands up if you would describe moving as a pleasant and easy process. Logistically straightforward? With no unforeseen complications? *Yeah, I thought so.* or *Well that is very lucky for you.* In Parshat Bamidbar, that already difficult process is put on a larger scale. Moses is instructed to take a census of all of the Israelites, and he counts tens of thousands. Bamidbar translates to “in the desert” which is an apt description for the rest of the Torah: decades of wandering in an inhospitable desert, all in search of a permanent home. 

In Chicago there are also unfortunately tens of thousands of people without access to permanent housing. There  are 58 thousand homeless people in Chicago, enough to fill an entire ward. This can include people in shelters, living on the street, living doubled up, or couch surfing. Many of them are victims of domestic violence. Many are veterans. Nearly one fourth are children. And the city of Chicago does not do enough to combat this problem. Chicago ranks tenth out of the top eleven United States cities with the largest homeless populations in spending per homeless person. It lags behind New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington D.C. to name a few. Even those with housing may still be in a precarious situation, often exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 30 percent of Chicago renters reported having little to no confidence in their ability to pay the next months rent, putting them at the brink of homelessness in a city that does not provide them an adequate safety net. 

Luckily, there is a solution that can help to combat Chicago’s housing injustice problem. The Bring Chicago Home initiative is a coalition of a variety of different Chicagoland organizations, including multiple faith based ones. They are proposing an increase to the Real Estate Transfer Tax on properties of over a million dollars. This increase would create a dedicated revenue stream that the city could then dedicate to providing permanent supportive housing for Chicago’s homeless residents. This would include the preservation of existing housing, the creation of new housing, and other supportive services such as counseling and job training. This would raise $160 million a year, housing 12,000 Chicago residents over the next ten years.

Bring Chicago Home is advocating for a solution that works. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Permanent Supportive Housing has up to a 98 percent Housing Retention Rate, those housed through this structure will stay housed. In addition, the tax increase would only affect about 5 percent of properties sold in Chicago. The vast majority of Chicagoans would not have to pay any extra money under this increase. This is a solution with multiple other benefits in addition to combating Chicago’s homelessness problem. It is cost effective. People experiencing homelessness are more likely to use the Emergency Room and hospitals. It also makes people less likely to face harassment from police officers/ 

Currently, the Bring Chicago Home coalition is working to bring this initiative to the ballot as a referendum in the November election. For this to happen, 26 alderpeople across the city must be on board, currently there are 18 who have given commitments to support the Bring Chicago Home initiative. When I started writing this D’Var, there were only 14 alders on board which really goes to show the momentum that this coalition has. Bring Chicago Home and affiliate organizations are working to bring the remaining 8 necessary alders on board. 

Like in parshat Bamidbar, this is a large task, and it takes all of us doing our part to get everyone the permanent home that they need. Recently, Bring Chicago Home held a rally  of faith communities outside of city hall, where we delivered a letter signed by 80  Faith leaders from across the city, including our own Rabbis Seigel, Russo, and Chankin-Gould, urging Mayor Lightfoot to support the initiative. This summer, in preparation of the November election, Bring Chicago Home is planning more actions to convince the Mayor and city council to get the referendum on the ballot. And we need help. It takes five minutes to send an email to your Alderperson asking for their support, showing them that this is what their constituents want. You can spread the word of our campaign via social media. You can attend events and actions that will be hosted across the city this summer, and you can donate to support Bring Chicago Home at Bring Chicago Home dot org. If you would like to get involved, you can find someone with a JCUA pin during kiddush lunch, and we will give you a half sheet with some information that you can scan after chag. It will help you send an email to your alderperson in support of this campaign. You can also ask them any questions you might have about Bring Chicago Home or JCUA’s other social justice work. In addition, two JCUA members, Andie and Alex, will be leading a session at Tikkun Leil tonight on the meaning of housing justice within Judaism through a textual lens. Feel free to check it out if you are interested. 

Spoiler alert for the end of the Torah: working together, the hundreds of thousands of Israelites counted in parshat Bamidbar managed to get across the desert and to somewhere they could call home. This congregation, working together with people across the city, can definitely bring Chicago’s 58,000 homeless residents home. Shabbat Shalom.