BY STEVE ALBERT
Executive Director of Mittleman Jewish Community Center and Portland Jewish Academy.
Everyone knows that Portland has a large population of homeless individuals. The problem is not new, and there are numerous current efforts – both public and private – to address the issues of homelessness. These issues go far beyond the shortage of affordable housing, although that is certainly a part of the problem. The issues include food insecurity, substance abuse, and insufficient services for mental illness. In addition, homelessness is tied to workplace issues, as working individuals and families can find themselves evicted following a change or interruption in their income.
The Jewish community is involved in addressing Portland’s homeless crisis in a variety of ways. It’s appropriate for us to do so, and not simply because there are members of the Jewish community among the homeless. For some, the responsibility to address homelessness is seen as a religious duty, and there are Jewish texts that specifically identify the provision of housing as an act of tzedakah (“justice” or “charity”). For many, the urgency to address the problem is combined with a commitment to social action and tied to a responsibility for tikkun olam, or “repairing the world.”
A number of local Jewish organizations have partnered, over time, with Cascadia Clusters, which builds tiny homes on wheels. These units are sited in clusters and offer very affordable housing. Moreover, Cascadia Clusters trains houseless individuals in skills such as framing, roofing, and carpentry, empowering them to enter the workforce as skilled laborers. Currently, Cascadia Clusters is leasing property from the Mittleman Jewish Community Center for a work site. The organization works regularly with Tivnu and with Portland Jewish Academy, and welcomes volunteers from other Jewish agencies as well as the community at large. In prior years, Cascadia Clusters has partnered with Congregation Neveh Shalom and Congregation Beth Israel, among others.
While Cascadia Clusters is focused on the construction of affordable housing and the training of houseless individuals, other efforts are focused on related issues. For several years, Portland Jewish Academy managed an effort to create “plarn” sleeping mats for individuals on the streets. “Plarn” stands for “plastic yarn,” and this project uses plastic shopping bags as the raw material for weather resistant, insulated crocheted mats. This project has recently been passed on to Positive Charge PDX.
PJA, like other local Jewish organizations, is also seeking to address food insecurity. The school partners with Transition Projects to offer shelter feeds and provides groups of volunteers on a regular basis to Blanchet House. PJA and the MJCC hold monthly donation drives, as do other Jewish agencies, many of which benefit organizations that serve homeless individuals.
The range of related projects is impressive. For example, two years ago, Congregation Beth Israel partnered with Portland Homeless Family Solutions to offer a winter shelter on their campus.
The MJCC plans to offer a Business Breakfast program on houselessness, previously scheduled March 17, in the near future. Whether it’s time, money, food or supplies, all of us can help Portland overcome this serious challenge.