Temporary Shelter: One Sukkah's Stories of Homelessness
by Heather G. Stoltz
Like so many New
Yorkers, I pass homeless people
on the streets every day
and wonder about them.
Who are they? Where are
their families? What are their
stories? In 2008, I got to know some of New
York's homeless while working as the community service coordinator for the Stephen
Wise Free Synagogue. Spending a lot of time
with the residents of the synagogue's men's
shelter, I learned about the Faith-Based Emergency
Shelter Network, approximately 100
churches and synagogues that house volunteer-
run homeless shelters in the city. I was
inspired to tell the stories of the shelters' guests
through my art.
In order to embody the stories of homeless
individuals artistically, I decided to create
a free-standing structure reminiscent
of a sukkah, a temporary hut constructed
for use during the week-long festival of
Sukkot. The inside walls tell the stories of
the individuals from the shelters and the
outside walls are covered with artwork created
by children in family shelters. By hanging
these stories on the walls of the sukkah,
the homeless men, women and children
become the exalted guests – the biblical ushpizin
whom we traditionally invite into our
sukkot every night of the holiday.
The piece was guided by two Jewish texts.
Sefer Hasidim (a 12th-century legal text)
teaches that “if a community lacks a place
of worship and a shelter for the poor, it is
to build a shelter
poor.” And in
Vayikra Rabbah 34:1 (commentaries
on the book of
Yonah says: “The
verse does not say
‘Happy is the one
who gives to a poor
person.” Rather it
says: ‘Happy is the
one who considers
a poor person.'
Therefore, you must
consider how best to
benefit such a person.”
I was struck in the first quote by the directive
to build a home for the poor before a
house of worship and wanted to create a piece
that would resemble a permanent structure.
All of the children's art was created on grey
fabric pieced together to look like stones
when seen from a distance. On closer inspection,
however, you see its temporary nature
with its fabric walls and sheer roof, reminding
us that although we have built shelters
for our poor, we do not have a permanent
solution to the problem of homelessness.
I was constantly reminded of the vast differences
among the people living side-byside
in the shelters. Each individual's unique
story brought him or her to the shelter
and each person had different needs. Since
the nine inside panels tell nine distinct
stories, the viewer is asked to consider them
as individuals as Rabbi Yonah instructs, paying
attention to one at a time.
I was deeply affected by the story of a
young woman named Heather who had been
a successful copy editor living on the Upper
East Side. Heather had returned to school
for an additional degree but when she graduated
in 2008, there were no jobs and no
way for her to continue paying her rent.
The left side of the piece illustrates
Heather's successful life. The city skyline
is a backdrop for the silhouettes that show
her at work at the computer, partying with
friends and shopping. The night sky in
the background shimmers.
In the next section, the skyscrapers are
replaced by stacks of books as she delves into
her studies. Once she receives her graduation
cap and diploma, the golden backdrop ends
Buried in this chaos
is a door with an
exit sign, a door
that is always available
if she chooses
to return to her parents'
home in Georgia.
person whose story
appears in the
piece, grew up on
the streets of New Jersey. His mother was
unable to care for him and his three sisters
so they were raised by his grandmother.
He dropped out of school in sixth grade and
by the age of 13 he was getting high with
friends, which led to a life of petty crime
and hard drugs.
He was sent to a training school for boys
but ended up with the same crowd. In and
out of jail, he realized at the age of 42 that
this was not what he wanted from life.
“Drugs will destroy your body – mentally
and physically,” he said. “My goal is to
become a decent human being for myself
and the Lord, to love myself and not hurt
myself.” To accomplish this, he is in a 12-
step program as well as programs for behavior
modification and relapse prevention. He
is learning a trade and writing poetry that
reflects this new outlook on life.
This piece shows his journey from the
darkness of drugs to the light of religion,
poetry and his profession as a plumber. The
background is painted with the words from
two of his poems. The first poem, which
speaks about his belief in God and the need
to do the right thing, is a divider between
his two lives. The second, a poem he wrote
for his mother about believing in yourself,
pours out of an open journal toward the
light of his new life.
It is my hope that those viewing the piece
will be inspired to take the time to consider
the homeless in their cities as the individuals
they are. To learn more about the piece
or to see the exhibition schedule, visit my
website: www.sewingstories.com. A book
which contains all of the art and stories in
the piece is available on Amazon.com.
Heather Stoltz received an MA in Jewish Women's Studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary, along with bachelor's degrees in mechanical engineering and Jewish studies from Lafayette College. She was named one of the Jewish Week's 36 Under 36 in 2012.