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Homelessness in the Jewish Community

Hear Us, We Are Here is a project to bring awareness and understanding to Jewish homelessness in the Lower Mainland. The project involves interviews with Lower Mainland Jews who are or have been homeless, or at high risk of homelessness, and surveys with community leaders. It will culminate in a written report and presentation to the community in early 2022.

Mara Shnay, a founding member of the JFS Client Advisory Committee and its Chair for three years, sat down to share her own experience of homelessness and how this project started.

Can you please share your own experience of homelessness?

I was homeless from July 2019 – March 2020. I lost my subsidized housing in July 2019 because of plumbing, flooding, severe mould contamination and allergies. I was forced to move from my apartment and lost all of my possessions because of the contamination. Then right as the pandemic hit in March 2020, I moved into a temporary apartment with just a plastic bag of clothes, my medications, and my CPAP machine. This October, just in time for my  birthday I am finally moving into an apartment with Tikva Housing and am looking forward to really having a home again.

During the 8 months from July-March I ended up living in 2 countries and about 50 places. It was very traumatizing. Some places I stayed in just for one night, others for more. Some places were very nice and some were horrible.  I was basically living out of my car for a chunk of that period. The only time I felt safe was a 5-week period staying with friends.

One day in the summer of 2020 I found myself sitting on a sofa and completely frozen, I could not move, and I realized I was frozen in terror. Gradually, I unfroze and went back to the usual. I realized it was PTSD, realized I needed to heal, and I also started to wonder what this homeless experience was like for other people.

How did this project come about?

Often when homelessness is discussed we picture people struggling with addictions or serious psychiatric conditions, but not people like me. When I was going through this, people in the Jewish community didn’t seem to understand and I thought that nobody cared. But I saw this outpouring of care during Covid and I thought, it’s not that people don’t care, it’s that they don’t understand. Especially when people don’t fit the stereotype and look like they’re doing alright.

I thought there must be others like me who are experiencing the same thing. I wondered why isn’t there more support for people in this situation? So I thought increased understanding would be a good start. So I approached JFS and Jewish Federation, who agreed to fund this project about Jewish homelessness in Vancouver. And that’s how it all started.

 How did you choose the name for the project?

I chose “Hear Us, We Are Here” because people who are or have experienced homelessness are often unheard and unseen. They experience enormous suffering and often feel like people don’t care and don’t understand, that they are completely invisible. They feel like people don’t see their richness as human beings and the wisdom they bring from their lived experience.

What have you discovered from interviewing other people who have experienced homelessness for this project?

Everyone I spoke to was deeply traumatized by their experience. Even people who were only at risk of homelessness (ie. got evicted and found a place at the last minute), are still traumatized by that experience. The other thing that struck me was that everyone interviewed thanked me at the end because they hoped telling their stories increased understanding in the community and could lead to others being able to avoid the suffering they experienced.

The other interesting thing is that of all the people I interviewed, only a few of them were homeless because of addiction or mental health issues. Many of them were disabled and couldn’t work. They didn’t have enough money to pay rent. For several of them, normal shelters wouldn’t work because of too much stimulation, and shelters are scary places in general.

I discovered there are some supports for people who are addicts or with profound mental health issues (although not sufficient). However, if you don’t have a problem with addiction or mental health there is very little if any support.

Also, the people I interviewed really wanted to be connected with their Jewish community but found it very difficult.

On a personal note I felt deeply honored that people shared such intimate stories with me. My heart was broken again and again at the suffering people experience. But mostly I was amazed at the empathy, intelligence, strength, resilience, and courage of the people I interviewed. I kept having the thought that we often consider people successful if they are wealthy and/or have a high level of career achievement, but I think every person I interviewed was a success.

What are you hoping to accomplish with this project?

A few different things – I am hoping to increase the understanding about what the experience of homelessness is like in the Jewish community. I am hoping that by sharing peoples’ stories, community members will feel the same passion to help prevent others from going through the suffering and trauma of homelessness.  I am hoping that this project will lead not just to more housing, but also better programs and supports for people.

As a Jew, I also hope that it can help lead to a more inclusive community where everyone feels welcome.

Is there any advice you can give to people who are looking to help?

People tend to give a lot of advice, they say “why don’t you do …” or “try calling …”  but what is really helpful is listening, support, and action. For some that might be donating money to get more housing or fund supports, for others that might be spending time helping the person in crisis. Because being homeless is being in crisis, and even the most capable and independent person feels overwhelmed and needs a lot of support. I could give countless examples – but as an example from my own experience, after I had told a friend how distressing I found it looking at housing listings, she offered to look through listings and send me a short list. Taking one thing off my plate and offering emotional support was an immense help.

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