By Robin Yasinow
Congregation Beit Tikvah
Organizers who work with the homeless disagree about the best way to support beggars on the street. Many recommend providing a meal, rather than cash. It may take a few extra minutes to pick up a sandwich, or to bring a beggar a cup of coffee and a donut. But in the end, the person on the receiving end will have a more tangible interaction with a caring human being. Most beneficial would be a contribution to a local shelter and advocacy on behalf of affordable housing, in addition to a one-to-one relationship on the street. Rabbi Barbara Penzner from RRC's Guide to Jewish Practice, Tzedaka
If a community lacked a synagogue and a shelter for the poor, it was first obligated to build a shelter for the poor. Sefer Chasidim
Here's a modern variation of that twelfth-century precept: Open a community's houses of worship as temporary shelter to families who are homeless. Assist them in their quest for independence by providing not only meals and professional resources but also companionship and emotional support.
The manifestation of this idea, known as the Interfaith Hospitality Network, is at work right now in more than 105 U.S. communities.
After two years of planning, Congregation Beit Tikvah and 13 other congregations of various faiths launched the Baltimore Interfaith Hospitality Network, or BIHN in January. Every six weeks, members of Beit Tikvah share the responsibility of hosting up to 14 guests at a neighboring congregation, Roland Park Presbyterian Church.
In Baltimore, homeless parents of dependent children often face the challenge of finding a single shelter that will accept all family members. Typically, families must split up, with men and older boys going to one shelter, and women, young children and older girls going to another. By working together, the 14 BIHN congregations offer what few shelters can: a chance for families to live together in a safe, supportive environment.
Guests of the network, many of whom are homeless for the first time, receive the guidance of BIHN's executive director and only employee, a licensed social worker who helps them develop a plan for achieving self-sufficiency.
At the heart of BIHN are its volunteers, who spend evenings and weekends with guests sharing meals, playing games, doing homework, watching television and engaging in common activities of everyday life. Rather than telling guests what should happen, volunteers do their best to listen for and honor guests' needs, whether they be ingredients for meals, extra blankets or some quiet time in the evening. By extending to guests the same kind of hospitality one might receive at the home of a close friend, BIHN volunteers try to provide a sense of normalcy, privacy and autonomy that many other shelters cannot.
Food, family sleeping quarters, showers and laundry facilities - all are provided and certainly appreciated. But it's the personal attention and compassion of the network's volunteers that graduates of IHN frequently say is most essential to their success:
Think about programs provided by municipalities and organizations for the poor and homeless, including programs and projects you're involved in: