Tuesday, January 21, 2020 -
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Denver’s homeless: Beyond the ban

Boy,  that was a tough one . . . How to make the streets of Denver safe and appealing without specifically targeting the homeless and making their lives even more difficult.  Denver’s City Council stayed up until the wee hours of the morning last Tuesday to deal with this seemingly no-win situation, and ultimately passed a ban on camping on public property. It wasn’t easy. It probably was the right move, but it makes no one feel good.

As Denver strives to recover from the economic downturn of the past few years by attracting area residents, tourists and businesses into the city, it has become necessary to face the problem of the homeless or Occupy Denver protesters camping out and loitering on the streets, in the parks and on the sidewalks that were created or enhanced to attract people. Denver has long held a coveted reputation as a relatively safe city, and we count on our elected officials and law enforcement to keep it that way.

Banning the homeless from Denver’s public areas, however, imposes another level of powerlessness and humiliation on the impoverished in our midst. Denver has a few worthy homeless shelters, most notably the Samaritan House, created by Denver’s Catholic community under the leadership of the late Monsignor Charles Woodrich (“Father Woody), but there are not enough beds in all the shelters for all those who currently camp on the streets overnight.

Then there’s the issue of the homeless who, for whatever reason — mental illness, addiction — cannot or simply will not stay in a shelter.

The proper approach to this dilemma may be found in Jewish teachings.

Undoubtedly, the first reason we think of helping the poor is sheer compassion. The Torah, however, finds a special reason for Jews to have compassion — that we Jews were in Egypt and should know how it feels to be completely without resources.

Therefore, we should  treat others as we wanted  to be treated back in Egypt.

The late Rabbi Noach Weinberg wrote, ”Tzedakah is not only helping people financially, it’s also making them feel good. If a hungry person asks for food, and you give it to him with a resentful grunt, you’ve lost the mitzvah. Sometimes giving an attentive ear or a warm smile is more important than money.

“You can also protect someone’s self-esteem by giving even before he asks. The bottom line is that every person has unique needs, and it is our obligation to help each one accordingly.”

Many people think the highest level of tzedakah is to give money anonymously. Actually there’s an even higher level: helping a person to become self-sufficient. This includes giving him a job, or a loan to start a business.

That’s why we liked it when the Denver Newspaper Agency allowed homeless people to hawk the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News on street corners. Instead of begging for money, these people were given dignity by selling something, by having their own little business, as modest as it might have been.

The homeless among us need help. How much the government should be involved is perhaps the definitive argument dividing the left and the right in this country, and we’re not going to settle it here. What we can agree on, however, is the humanitarian — the Jewish — obligation to the impoverished.

Denver’s Temple Emanuel has been ahead of the curve with its Kvod Caterers, feeding the homeless every Sunday for decades.

Let’s do more of this. As a Jewish community we could take a cue from our Catholic and other Christian neighbors and find ways to restore some dignity to the homeless. We’re not suggesting the Jewish community open a homeless shelter, but organizations and individuals can and should look deep within themselves for ways to offer jobs or business opportunities to the impoverished.

The City Council ban will not remove the homeless from our midst. We’re still going to see them panhandling on many street corners. We should heed Rabbi Weinberg’s suggestion to give them  — at minimum — a warm smile or an encouraging word.

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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