Columns | First Person | High Holidays

I am buying homeless signs for Sukkot this year

LOS ANGELES (Jewish Journal) — I started building my sukkah in December. To those of you who are sukkah DIYers, you know how ridiculous this sounds.

A sukkah is the ritual hut that Jews build each year on the holiday of Sukkot, which begins this year on the evening of Sept. 18. You set it up after Yom Kippur, you take it down after the eight days of Sukkot are over. Most sukkahs come as easy-to-make pre-fab kits — setting one up takes all of 30 minutes, even for a tool-challenged people.

So why did I start making mine eight months ago?

Homeless sign (1)Because this year, I’m making a sukkah from homeless signs.

I collected my first one on a whim. At the off-ramp of the 10 Freeway at Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica, a man was standing with a crude cardboard sign that said, “50 But Not Dead.” I couldn’t have said it better myself, I thought. When he approached me and asked for some change, I heard myself blurting out, “Five dollars for the sign.”

From there, my lark became a mission. To the next person, a woman at the median strip at Venice and Overland, I gave $3 — it was all I had on me.  Her sign said, “Hungry.”

I kept going. As a kid, I was obsessed by the famous LIFE magazine photo of a well-dressed man selling apples for a nickel on a Manhattan street corner. I harbored inchoate fears of living in such a world.

And here we are.

I stopped each time I saw someone with a sign and offered to buy every one I could without causing a traffic accident. On Venice and Sepulveda, Venice and Overland, various off-ramps, in Venice Beach — Los Angeles may be losing its movie productions and manufacturing base, but I bet our great city produces more panhandling signs than any other city in the world.

And what, friends and family asked me, would I do with all of them?

At some point it dawned on me: Build a sukkah.

The booths we are commanded to build on Sukkot are a reminder of the dwellings in which the Children of Israel lived following the Exodus. While the shelter’s walls can be made of any material, the roof must be covered only with organic matter — palm fronds, bamboo — spaced wide enough to let some raindrops through.

Why not, I thought, build a sukkah whose walls are made entirely from homeless signs affixed to a bamboo frame?

During Sukkot, we eat our meals and sometimes sleep in the shelter we have created. Its fragility and impermanence is a reminder of our own. The shelter it provides is welcome, but unstable. A sukkah is not a home.

Neither, my sukkah will remind us, are the streets of Los Angeles. The human suffering that can be found in the shadow of our comfortable homes is shameful. That such homelessness occurs in the midst of enormous wealth is beyond the pale.

Presently, some 58,000 homeless men, women and children live in Los Angeles County, a 16 percent jump over the last two years. The economic downturn is chiefly to blame. But the end of federal stimulus funds for emergency housing, combined with Gov. Jerry Brown’s diversion of some 15,000 low-level felons to L.A. jails and probation services, have added to the numbers. The bright news for many of us — a steady upturn in the housing market — also means more misery for people for whom rents are already a stretch.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has pledged not to just manage homelessness, but to end it. He understands that the word “homeless” is a nearly useless catch-all phrase that hides a variety of causes and conditions, all of which require varying approaches. He has embraced innovative solutions like permanent supportive housing, which combines low-cost shelters with a full array of social services like childcare, job training, substance abuse and mental health counseling.

Will Garcetti succeed? Other urgent needs may intervene. Political will often lags; money doesn’t materialize; the homeless don’t vote.

At a Jewish community event in his honor in Brentwood recently, Garcetti — the city’s first elected Jewish mayor — said he will use his close ties to the community not just to heed its needs, but to enlist the city’s influential, active Jewish community in helping him forward his own agenda.

One way we can help is to remind the mayor of his promise. A sukkah built entirely of homeless signs will stand as a constant reminder to the mayor, and to all of us, of the work that needs to be done. The entire structure will be not just a symbol of our fragility, but of the fragile existence so many people in this county lead on the streets each day. The sukkah will stand until the mayor meets his promise — simple.

Now, here’s where you come in: As of now, I have enough signs to form just one wall. A sukkah has at least three walls and a roof. This sukkah needs more signs. It needs more builders. It needs a visible, public place to stand. It needs you.

Go to our Web site,, to find out how you can help collect signs, and where you can come help build the Homeless Sukkah next month. If your synagogue or school would like to take on the project, even better.

There are, unfortunately, a lot more signs to buy.

(Rob Eshman is the publisher and editor in chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.)