Tom would prefer to say he “lived outside” for seven months. He likes the sound of it better than “homeless.”
Semantics aside, the reality is that this accomplished scientist with a PhD in toxicology from MIT, a $400,000 income, and a condo in one of Boston’s priciest neighborhoods ended up living by himself in the woods three years ago. He was in his mid-60s, and for much of that time he didn’t even have a tent.
Tom is quick to point out he does not fit the stereotype of a homeless person. “It wasn’t because I was on drugs or drinking alcohol or because I wasn’t educated or I was lazy,” said Tom, who asked that his last name not be used. His situation was caused by a catastrophic collapse of his business, he said, combined with clinical depression.
Another way he bucks the stereotype is that he’s Jewish.
To many, the notion of Jewish homelessness is an oxymoron, challenging the trope of the American Jewish success story. “When I speak to a group, and speak about Jewish poverty, many times I get a chuckle from people not aware of its existence,” said Lino Covarrubias, CEO of Jewish Family Service of Metrowest (JFS), a social service agency which supports people struggling with poverty outside of Boston.
“There is a perception,” he said, “that Jews in America have done well economically and could not possibly experience such a thing as poverty or homelessness.”
But they do, and the coronavirus situation is making it worse. That predicament has made housing instability and homelessness are major priorities for Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) in Boston. The Jewish federation launched an Anti-Poverty Initiative in 2015 that’s become a national model for how Jewish Federations can work collaboratively to address poverty, according to Jon Hornstein of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation which supports people experiencing poverty.
Massachusetts is one of the least affordable states in the country, with the dubious distinction of ranking first in the country in growth of family homelessness, according to new federal data. And getting out of homelessness can be very difficult, with years-long waiting lists for subsidized housing.
About five years ago, CJP began collecting data on people struggling with poverty in Greater Boston’s Jewish community. Their findings were “shocking,” according to Sarah Abramson, CJP’s Senior Vice President, Strategy and Impact. Some 56 % of clients lived below the federal poverty level. The median annual household income was about $14,000. More than 70% had a college degree or higher.
CJP set up a centralized hotline called Warmline staffed by social workers for people in financial distress, and 40 % of the callers reported that housing was a concern, saying they were struggling with rent or mortgage payments, or were full-out homeless.
“What tips them over is a combination of things,” said Deborah Freed, a case manager for Yad Chessed, one of three partner agencies working with CJP on housing instability. “Something went wrong, whether it’s a medical issue or an accident, or they’re no longer able to work or cope, and there are simply not enough people who can help them financially to weather a bad time. The safety net is not big enough.”
It’s difficult to know the extent of Jewish homelessness in the Boston area, but CJP’s partner agencies all say they have homeless clients. They may be living on the street “or doing some version of couch-surfing,” said Deborah Freed. “They may have a temporary place with a family member who says they can stay for a month, but it won’t last. And we have clients who live in cars.”
Also unknown is how many Jewish people are not on the radar of Jewish organizations.
Dr. Roseanna Means is founder and chief medical officer of Health Care Without Walls, a Boston non-profit providing free medical care to homeless women and children, and Jewish women are among her patients. But like women of all faiths, she said, many stay away from formal organizational entities out of a sense of shame.
Yad Chessed has an active caseload of 400 clients “and right now we have nine clients officially listed as homeless,” according to executive director Nancy Kriegel. Another 20 or so are “close, at risk of homelessness,” a situation exacerbated by COVID-19 which is causing people already on the edge to lost their jobs and plummet.
“Evictions are on hold here so that’s a really good thing, but ultimately there will be clients we’re concerned about who’ve lost jobs and may end up being in a homeless situation,” she said. Calls to the hotline have tripled since the pandemic began, according to CJP.
COVID-19 has hit some sectors of the Jewish community especially hard, including Jewish community centers, day schools, and synagogues. In Boston this also includes kosher restaurants and caterers, which in turn has impacted mashgichim who certify products as kosher.
Rabbi Moshe Kaufman, kashrus administrator for KVH Kosher, a kosher certification agency, reluctantly sent termination letters to a number of mashgichim but is working with Yad Chessed to find them services, and directing them to Boston’s kosher food pantry.
“These individuals are struggling to pay the rent,” he said. “They tell me they’re worried about having a roof over their heads.”
Tom, the toxicologist, credits the Jewish community with saving his life. He looks back on his situation as “shocking and traumatic.”
He’d experienced clinical depression as a student at MIT but went on medication that “wiped it out,” he said. He started a lucrative consulting business as an expert witness providing litigation support in chemical exposure cases. He had five employees and bought a 2,800-square-foot condo in Boston’s toney Seaport District.
But then came “a real turnaround.” For years, he’d worked on a major chemical spill case in Louisiana, billing the attorneys who hired him for more than a million dollars. But they refused to pay him. He sued them successfully, but the settlement money went mostly to his attorney. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and his lawsuit became impossible to pursue.
“I wiped me out totally,” he said. His depression returned. His business fell apart. He sold his condo, “but I’d refinanced it so many times I didn’t get a lot of money out of it.” He moved from rental to rental, worked as a window salesman, then a cashier at Home Depot. He couldn’t pay his car insurance and lost his car. “It was more than a decade of me being seriously depressed and floating from apartment to apartment,” he said.
For a while he lived in a motel, helped by a brother who lived out of state and shared the cost. His brother reached out for help to Jewish Family Service of Metrowest and took Tom to meet with a social worker, Shoshana Savitz, who got him on a two-year waiting list for housing.
But he was evicted from the motel because he couldn’t pay for it anymore and was too depressed and embarrassed to contact the social worker. His options now narrowed to a homeless shelter or the woods, and he chose the woods.
He found a quiet place for himself behind a McDonald’s and settled in, staying warm with comforters and a tarp. He developed a routine: breakfast at McDonalds where he charged his computer, then over to Panera Bread where he worked on a memoir. He took showers at a nearby pool. “It was an adjustment,” he said. “Humans are just very adaptable.”
But then winter came and he couldn’t endure it any longer. He emailed Savitz on a cold snowy night in December and told him her was spiraling downwards. “She immediately pulled out all the stops,” he said. She sent police to find him and arranged for him to move to a motel where she’d left a huge bag of food. “From that day forward, I moved forward,” he said. “She was my last hope.”
Savitz describes him as a “very smart and capable man” who’d hit “rock bottom,” and was embarrassed to ask for help. “People are surprised by how many people there are who need financial support in the Jewish community.”
Tom now lives in a subsidized studio apartment furnished by JFS, and has a dog – “a 69-year-old living with a toddler,” he laughs. He lives on his social security and says he’s happier than he was when he had plenty of money.
He considers Savitz to be his “hero” and JFS as a lifesaver. “It was like being around 30 Jewish mothers,” he said. “I could deal with that, for a limited period of time. There was nothing better in the world.”
Linda Matchan is a Boston journalist and documentary filmmaker.
In Boston, a Jewish agency tackles “shocking” poverty and homelessness