William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Sat, 17 Sep 2005 08:18:31 -0400

Romney urged to redirect extra aid

Rabbis say homeless need Katrina surplus
By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff  |  September 17, 2005

Pointing to a surplus of volunteers and money offered by Massachusetts
residents to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, an umbrella organization
of rabbis in the state is calling on Governor Mitt Romney to redirect some
of the resources to assist the local poor and homeless population.

The Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, in a rare venture into public policy
matters, sent Romney a letter yesterday asking him to channel excess
donations and volunteer energy to the area's needy.
''There are many who are homeless or in critical need in our own state who
are not victims of this tragedy," the rabbis wrote. ''We should not forget
them. Instead, we should utilize this outpouring of energy and support not
only to help Katrina's victims, but to take care of those in our midst who
are also in dire need."

The board of rabbis, which represents Reform, Conservative,
Reconstructionist, and unaffiliated rabbis in the state, has not spoken out
on public policy matters in the past because of their disagreements over
many issues. But the rabbis said they were moved by repeated statements from
state officials, including Romney, that the hurricane had spurred more
donations and volunteers than the state could use and that the state had the
ability to house and assist 2,500 evacuees from the Gulf Coast. Only 209
evacuees have been airlifted to Massachusetts from New Orleans.

''We speak out on public policy issues rarely because we are a diverse
organization, but this is an issue that we can all agree on -- if we're
going to reach out and help homeless and impoverished people, then we have a
responsibility to pay attention to those in our own community," said the
president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Barbara R. Penzner of
Temple Hillel B'nai Torah, a Reconstructionist congregation in West Roxbury.
''The governor was prepared to help 2,500 people, so why can't the spaces
that were allotted for them be given to people in Boston who don't have
homes and can't afford to live here?"

Romney referred calls to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Richard R. Powers, the spokesman for the department, said redirecting
volunteer energy or donations is not a state task.

''Certainly that would be a wonderful gesture, but that's up to each person
to make his or her own choice," Powers said. He also said that because the
state was not the ''conduit" for donated items, ''we can't redirect what
isn't ours. That would have to be made by the charitable organizations."

But Powers defended the Romney administration's record on homelessness. He
said that the state spends more than $250 million per year on homelessness
and that the state recently succeeded in moving 600 families out of hotels
and motels into permanent housing and shelters.

''Helping our fellow Americans who lost everything in the wake of Hurricane
Katrina is a very important undertaking, but just as we've been committed to
helping our guests from the Gulf Coast, this administration has been
committed to fighting homelessness," Powers said. ''Facing a $3 billion
deficit three years ago, the Romney-Healey administration pledged to hold
harmless all state-funded homelessness programs, and they've not only kept
that promise, but have actually increased funding."

The Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless welcomed the rabbis' stance.
''If anything positive comes from Katrina, it is that it will highlight the
poverty in our nation and that the need for affordable housing is so much
more vast than any of us knew," said Robyn Frost, executive director of the
advocacy organization. ''Homelessness in the Commonwealth has been growing
for the last 25 years, and it all stems from the lack of affordable

The state says there are about 1,300 families and 3,000 individuals in
homeless shelters in Massachusetts at any given time; the homeless coalition
says the actual number is higher because some homeless people stay with
friends and family.

The idea for the rabbis' statement was put forward by Rabbi David G. Lerner
of Temple Emunah, a Conservative congregation in Lexington. Lerner said that
at his own congregation, members are collecting cans of food for the needy
of Massachusetts as well as bags of toiletries for those displaced by

''Katrina was both a natural disaster and a human-made disaster, and there
are a lot of people that suffer from natural and human-made disasters that
don't get the same attention, locally and nationally as well as
internationally," Lerner said.

The rabbis said they are concerned that it is more difficult to focus
charitable energy on ongoing problems than on short-term crises. ''We're all
able to reach deeper into our souls when there's a tragedy, but can we reach
deeper for what we see around us, which is equally tragic, but we become
used to it," said Rabbi Barry Starr of Temple Israel, a Conservative
congregation in Sharon. Starr is heading up an effort by the rabbis to
become more active on public policy matters.

''Let's not just say our local homeless and poor are there, and they'll
always be there," Starr said.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.