There’s nothing special about the Safeway in Pinehurst. It’s a quiet morning, sunny but cool. Around a dusty outdoor table, Israel Arshinov, a 68-year-old former officer in the Russian army, is telling his story.
Life started out well. Arshinov was born in Dagestan, a bastion of peaceful relations between religions and ethnicities. Following his love of soccer, he attended a military academy in Rostov, Russia, to be able to play for a good team. He married and had three children and worked his way up the ranks in the military. But things started to go downhill in the 1980s.
“I remember this date. April 26, 1986,” he says. “I wasn’t there, but I remember when this happened.”
While Arshinov was serving in Afghanistan for 28 months, his wife and youngest daughter were 20 kilometers from Chernobyl when the nuclear reactor exploded. Not long after, they were both diagnosed with leukemia.
Arshinov’s wife died in 1999, and he took his daughter to the U.S. for treatment with the help of connections he’d made serving as a U.N. Peacekeeper. But it was too late. In 2003, at the age of 19, she died, too. Having spent the $35,000 he arrived with to save her, Arshinov struggled with odd construction jobs to make ends meet. While he was on a short job out of town, a roommate took his rent money and split. When Arshinov returned, his apartment had been rented.
“That is all,” he says bitterly. “I ended up in Lake City, on the streets.”
Weathered and gruff, Arshinov frequently chokes up. Beside him, Rabbi Sholom Ber Levitin reaches out an arm and waits for the emotion to pass. Levitin, the Northwest regional director of Chabad for four decades, has met a lot of people. He’s also helped a lot of them. After two years on the streets, and six hours prior to the start of Rosh Hashanah in 2010, Arshinov knocked on the Chabad office door in Lake City. The rabbi answered. Within five minutes, they found something in common: they were both born on January 20, 1947.
“I was shaken,” Levitin says. “Before Rosh Hashanah, this is some lesson for me.”
Seattle has been steadily getting more populated, and 10 years after the 10-year plan to end homelessness, it has the fourth-highest rate of people on the streets, behind Los Angeles, New York, and Las Vegas.
“People come here for the same reasons we come here: school, jobs, love,” says Seattle/King County Coalition to End Homelessness executive director Alison Eisinger. Informed by her family’s immigrant and refugee struggles, Eisinger dropped out of Columbia University and became a homelessness advocate during the crack epidemic in New York. Every January, her organization sends volunteers into the night to count people on the streets. This year, they found 10,147 homeless individuals across King County — 3,772 were living outside.
“People who are homeless are shamed and basically told, ‘You can’t exist here,’” she says. “That is not unlike the historical experience of Jews over time.” For her, Sukkot is a natural connection to her work.
“What does it mean to us if we’re going into the sukkah and we’re not realizing there are 10,000 people every night with no roof over their heads?” she asks. “It’s much easier to make homelessness an untouchable issue if we put forth the idea these people aren’t our neighbors. It’s not true that they’re not in our community. It’s that we choose to not see them.”
Outside Safeway, a woman loiters near our table. She’s wearing a sundress, sunglasses, and a cute straw hat. Eventually, two guys show up with ice cream bars and Cup Noodles soup. They are homeless, we later learn. Another woman walks by, and Arshinov flags her down. With long blond hair, wide green eyes, and a childlike midwestern drawl, she explains she and her husband came to Seattle for jobs and school. But right now she just wants to raise enough money for some tobacco. To that end, they’re flying signs at the intersection, which brings in about $10 a day. Just like that, the sidewalk in front of Safeway opened up to reveal a shadow world of individuals at once everywhere and visible and yet unseen. “On the individual level, opening our eyes to see they’re our neighbors is the first step,” Eisinger says.
“One of the big myths around homelessness is that there’s a laziness and people choose this path,” says Silvi Goldstein, a recent University of Washington graduate and an on-call staff person for Teen Feed, an organization that provides meals and services to homeless youth. “It’s the opposite of lazy. You have to for that day find food, money, and a place to sleep. That’s not laziness; that’s trying to survive.”
According to Goldstein, many kids are kicked out of their homes for being lesbian, gay, or transgender, or because their home life was so unstable that the street seemed safer. “You have to wonder. Something had to happen that was so bad that it made them leave their homes,” she says. And yet, she adds, “They’re really, really courageous and intelligent and ambitious in certain ways. The youth that I meet with are incredible young people who want to do good things in the world.”
Goldstein was inspired to volunteer with Teen Feed when she heard Chris Pearson, a former meal program coordinator, speak about the organization at a Hillel UW seder. Homelessness was the only rational choice Pearson’s 19-year-old brain could make when he found himself caught in a potentially violent relationship with a pot dealer. Fearing the man would find him and kill his family, Pearson moved into his van, refusing social services for the fear he’d be more easily found. “A lot of times it’s not rational; it’s survival,” he says.
With the help of a police officer he got to know while working at Starbucks, Pearson eventually got on his feet and went on to earn a college degree and work with at-risk young adults. He points out that homelessness will be tackled when we fight the systemic problems causing it, like homophobia, racism, and classism. “There needs to be a systemic, institutionalized change in U.S. society,” he says. “It seems so overwhelming. It’s like face-palming all the time.”
Sukkot is a good time to reflect on the gossamer veil between security and instability. “If Yom Kippur is about spiritual frailty, Sukkot is about physical frailty,” says Will Berkovitz, CEO of Jewish Family Service. “You live in something that is frail. You hear the sounds of the streets in a way you don’t typically. There are a lot of people that feel that pressure. They may not be homeless, but they are not far away from it.”
JFS was started in 1892 by 70 Jewish women to help the new Jewish community with homelessness, hunger, unemployment, and family struggles. While today it largely serves the non-Jewish community, Berkovitz notes that the related problems of financial vulnerability, domestic violence, and addiction are in our midst more than we may want to believe.
“There are kids who don’t know their parents are using the food bank. Domestic abuse is a lot more common than you think it is,” he says. “I know many people who are struggling with addiction, who have kids and spouses who are struggling with addiction. It’s not the other; it’s us. We need to understand that that’s the reality.”
The Jewish community, through projects like JFS’s Project Kavod and Temple Beth Am and Congregation Beth Shalom’s Homeless to Renter program, is trying to chip away at the problem. Randy Simon, the Teen Feed meal team leader at Temple Beth Am, sees much more potential. “We have empty parking lots. There are people living in their RVs and their cars, and they don’t have a safe place to be at night,” she says. “Churches are taking this on. And I don’t think the Jewish community is taking this on as much. I think there is a discomfort we need to get over.”
“What if we marshaled all those Jewish professionals and said, ‘This is something we need to pay attention to’?” Eisinger asks. “That would be pretty intense. There’s still the impulse to say ‘That’s too big and I can’t get involved in it.’”
Eisinger notes that for many Jews, America is the Promised Land. It’s the democracy with rights we were never afforded in the old country.
“American culture has turned its back on the idea that you need to participate actively in a democracy for it to work,” she says. “If all the people who cared about homelessness actually showed up and talked to their elected officials and said ‘this is one of the top three issues when I vote,’ that would change the landscape.”
Levitin laments that the great minds of the city can’t solve the problem. “In this city of affluence, it should not happen,” he says. “If you can have a drone deliver pizza to my house, you can figure it out.” He thinks Jewish children should hear Arshinov’s story and see where he slept. “That’s Jewish education,” he says.
But he recognizes that his job is on the ground, one person at a time. “Whatever he do, he do from his heart,” Arshinov says of Levitin through his thick Russian accent. “He keep me alive to this moment.” When Arshinov’s third grandson was born, he asked his son to name him Sholom, after the rabbi.
“A lot of Russian Jewish will be happy to give me money,” Arshinov says. “But I don’t want to make them feel good. I was a man over there. I had money, recognition. Now I am a nobody.”
“No, Israel, you’re never a nobody,” Levitin quickly responds. “You’re as important to God as anybody else.”
Arshinov frequently coughs and winces in pain. He is being treated for prostate cancer, a disease he attributes to homelessness. Arshinov knew 17 people who died on the streets. He remembers waking up one winter night covered in ice. “I would have been one of them,” he says.
Levitin stops by the table at Safeway with the three young adults and blesses them for success. It doesn’t matter if they’re not Jewish. “You’re a good person,” he says to each of them. “God loves you.”
The woman in the hat doesn’t take off her sunglasses, but it’s clear that she’s crying.