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Could L.A.'s Jay Goldinger Hold the Key to Defeating Homelessness?

Amidst the din surrounding the global economic meltdown, Americans might be excused if we haven’t paid too much attention to the youthful rioters roiling London and other British cities.

Still only a fool would shrug their shoulders at the images of a new blitz brought on not by high-flying bombers but text- messaging thugs making a mockery of British Police.

The pundits and talking heads from the U.K. I've heard recently offering explanations for the riots generally fall into two camps: the unrest is either “mindless violence” or  “social injustice.”

There are the inevitable calls for: 

A) A get-tough memo to the police to get back control of the streets and restore England’s suddenly –tarnished image ahead of next year’s Olympic Games or...

B) More social programs and employment opportunities for the underclass.

All these measures actually make a lot of sense, yet there is an underlying feeling that at the end of the day the key to society’s challenges on both sides of ‘the Pond’ does not always lie with more government intervention.

Indeed, British Prime Minister David Cameron summed up the fears and frustrations of many when he asked;

"Do we have the determination to confront the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations? Irresponsibility. Selfishness. Behaving as if your choices have no consequences... Reward without effort.”

So how do we begin to fix what’s broken?

Jay Goldinger might have the answer. For the last 805 Sundays, he and a small cadre of volunteers have stood on the frontline of Los Angeles’ forgotten jobless and homeless population and delivered change we can truly believe in. Goldinger’s initiative called "Food on Foot" does not merely give out food and clothing to the down and out but has helped turn many of them into productive taxpayers.

His tough-love approach is one that works to motivate people to take responsibility for their actions. Participants start by sweeping the streets. A completed week then brings cards redeemable for food. Ten consecutive weeks brings greater incentives and rewards. For those who don’t miss a week, they can, during the course of a year, get help with medical and dental problems and even see a $3,000 bank account opened in their name while being provided with safe housing and help getting a real job.

What’s the catch?

Accountability. Backsliding is never rewarded.  And there is another key component. Jay demands of everyone—random acts of kindness-- like sharing some food, guiding a blind person across the street, helping an elderly person with their shopping… 

Simple acts that remind us it isn’t how much you amass but what you are prepared to do for others that should define our worth as human beings. These simple acts challenge people clinging to the lowest rung of society to validate their self-worth and to realize that victimhood isn’t a coat that protects you from the elements but a straitjacket that locks you in to a cycle of misery.

To date, Food-on-Foot boasts an 89% success rate; roughly the reverse percentage of success enjoyed by government-funded programs. Oh, and did I mention that from Day 1 Jay has refused any and all government funding?

For a few hours on Jay Goldinger’s 804th Sunday, I was a foot soldier in Food On Foot’s three- hour outreach in a parking lot near Sunset and Vine in Hollywood

A few hundred homeless and handicapped people were helped with clothing and food, while people who want a way out are rewarded for a week’s worth of “a job well done”. Two have graduated to “gray shirt” status as they inch closer to rejoining the general population-with no help from Uncle Sam.

Jay told us that when a new group of workers sign up, he provides each with a mirror and offers this admonition: "Take a good in the mirror. You are looking at the enemy; the only person holding you back from a bright future.”

In a time of growing economic uncertainty and growing incivility in the political commons and social unrest, maybe Jay Goldinger is on to something. Maybe it is time for all of us -- including those of us in the the political and social elite -- to visit the Internet and shop for some mirrors for ourselves. Maybe the reflection in the mirror will stir us to remember the real reasons we were all put here in the first place.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and directs the Center's Digital Terrorism and Hate Project.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Follow the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Facebook and on Twitter.