Spending time with unhoused people challenged everything I knew about Sukkot
Sukkot is one of the most beautiful and uplifting holidays on the Jewish calendar. As a young child, I was often taught that we leave our homes and spend time in our sukkot to remind us of the days when the Israelites were unhoused and wandering in the desert, on their way to redemption.
The way I understood it, shortly after we complete the Ten Days of Repentance, we simulate that wandering feeling, symbolically showing our trust in a higher power who protects us.
But then I started to spend time on the streets with those who lack shelter. I am an urban policy researcher who studies homelessness, and my work involves spending time in encampments and documenting the lives of those who are or recently were unhoused.
I’ve since come to recognize that our modern-day temporary dwellings can’t possibly allow us to feel the sense of uncertainty felt by those who truly have no permanent shelter. A sukkah is nothing like a tent under a bridge. But, perhaps, that’s the point.
Encampments are jarring, especially when I return to a field site after several weeks away. I often count the tents. The encampment beneath Dallas’s Interstate 30 seems more expansive than I left it a few weeks ago. There are several more tents than there were on my last visit.
I look over to the next field, where I can see another encampment that’s grown. Housing precarity continues to rise in Dallas — reaching record levels at the last point-in-time count — and the streets cannot hide it.
“Look at this girl,” says B., as I approached his neighborhood on my last visit. “Here she comes just waltzing in after being away for so long,” he jokes.
I smiled and asked him what I’d missed, assuming the lighthearted nature of the conversation would continue. It didn’t.
A transgender woman was killed nearby a few weeks ago. And immediately before that, a man bled to death a few blocks over when emergency responders didn’t get there in time.
“We held a vigil for him,” B. told me, referring to L., the man who died.
It was a somber reminder that in the real world, there is no happy side to being unhoused, no joy in lacking the stability of a permanent residence. There is a constant sense of uncertainty, not knowing whether your life tomorrow will look like your life today. Access to basic needs — to the ability to relieve yourself without fear — is not a given. Time is experiential, with regular interactions and routines as points in time rather than objective numbers. Your sleep is never sound. Your safety can never be guaranteed.
There are certainly moments when reality can be suspended to appreciate the person in front of you or the kind and wonderful moment when shared humanity is recognized. But when that dissipates, as it always does, the darkness settles back in. The demons resurface. The constant threat of pain, suffering, loss and death cannot be ignored.
So how, I wonder, can Sukkot, the holiday of homelessness, also be referred to as “z’man simchateinu,” of happiness?
Perhaps we are meant to feel a sense of instability. After all, most Americans do not realize they are two paychecks, one major mental health crisis, and/or one significant loss away from being homeless. We vastly overestimate how much security we have, likely due to the materialism that surrounds us and the way we see unhoused people as nearly inhuman simply because they do not have ownership over a place to bathe, refrigerate their food or sleep.
I think the lesson of Sukkot goes deeper, though.
What people often do not realize is that the process of becoming homeless in the United States — of finding nowhere else to be able to physically exist except the streets – makes it increasingly difficult for someone to continue to retain a strong sense of identity outside of their living conditions.
Housed people who engage with those who are unhoused do so primarily in the context of their homelessness — either to degrade those without housing or to provide services. Few people who are unhoused can retain a network of peers who see them as more than homeless. And those who do see a deeper human nature are often other homeless individuals.
Physically, living conditions for unhoused people are degrading and frightening — providing very little security and safety, if any. The uncertainty of human survival on the streets is constant; basic needs are not guaranteed. And there are very few “good” decisions, including seeking out shelter assistance, that produce a better long-term situation.
Making your way back to a stable and housed situation is demanding, and one misstep could be an immense setback. The relentless nature of these conditions can lead to mental illness, addiction, alcoholism and even violence. One’s ability to significantly change their situation requires months and years of focused work, as mental health challenges grow in complexity.
This year, as I reflect on my work on the streets, it strikes me that the joy we can feel over this holiday of Sukkot stems from the recognition that living in a sukkah is a temporary physical state. During Sukkot, we retain our sense of self. We physically build a complex structure and acquire new items to celebrate the week. We can both acknowledge the physically limiting components of the structure around us and enjoy the freedom to leave that space, invite people into it and cherish it in the ways that best suit us. And, more than anything, we can hold onto the knowledge that this country does not strip us of our shared humanity and place us somewhere separate from others. While the structure around me can fall apart and will no longer matter after eight days, my identity is not attached to that existence.
As I celebrate Sukkot this year, I am shedding the lessons of my youth. I cannot in good faith claim that the hundreds of dollars that I pay for a Sukkah and the beautiful structure I enjoy at my leisure, that allows me to run into my own bedroom and bathroom at will, cultivates any sense of uncertainty or impermanence.
But what I can appreciate in a very genuine way, is the fact that my moments of vulnerability are short lived and fulfilling. That the days I spend under the stars allow me to disconnect, only a bit, from my established life. Never too much that I lose myself, but just enough to know I’m firmly attached.