The Double Life of Israel's Working Homeless

Official figures can be misleading: Many of Israel's homeless fall under the government's radar, and many hold down full-time jobs.

They live a double life; they get up in the morning, brush their teeth, and get the kids ready for another day of school. Then they head to work. At the end of the day they return to a non-home. They live in a tent, in an empty room in the apartment of a grandmother or one of the uncles, in the car, or perhaps they don't even know where they will be at night and search for a place where they can sleep until another day of work the next morning.

More and more people, including people with families, singles or even those soon to be pensioners, are living without housing even though they work, some even full-time. Being a working person no longer prevents you from being defined as poor. Even the National Insurance Institute is familiar with this data.

homeless, squatter
Michal Fattal

"Working just is not enough to spare you from poverty," says Attorney Gil Gan-Mor, the coordinator of Association for Civil Rights in Israel's Social and Economic Rights Department's Right to Housing project. "According to the latest data, half of poor families in Israel have at least one income earner, and in most of the families that have joined the impoverished in recent years, the head of the household works. It's extremely worrisome: Housing expenses are very high and working no longer guarantees anything."

Over the last few years, the authorities have known about some 2,000 people living on the streets, but it is estimated that there are another 1,000 or so whose cases are not being handled. According to the social work regulations, the definition of street dwellers does not include minors or released prisoners.

"There are thousands on the waiting list for housing, and beyond the large numbers of people eligible for public housing, there are tens of thousands more who are below the radar because they don't even meet the criteria," says Arik Ascherman, a former general secretary of Rabbis for Human Rights and today active in that organization's housing efforts "It's utterly contradictory: To a certain extent they tailored the criteria in order to limit the number of eligible people and correspond to the number of apartments. One of our objectives is to get the criteria changed so that they focus on the real need instead of on the availability."

The two organizations, both members of the Forum against Poverty, which is working to advance a national program to contain the problem, note that Israeli policy lags far behind the rest of the world in this area. While relevant official European organizations, such as the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA ) also defines those who stay temporarily with friends or relatives or in a place where they have no protection from eviction as homeless, the Social Affairs Ministry recognizes only "street dwellers."

Ascherman attacks government policy in this area: "These are not people on the margins of society or the unemployed. They are people who work and do not manage to pay for a roof over their heads. Most of them find temporary solutions after great effort and it's enough for one thing to go wrong; there is no safety net from the state and it's a short way from there downhill."

The Housing and Construction Ministry stated in response that "families where one spouse works who earns up to NIS 7,000, including single-parent families, are eligible for rent subsidies. As for public housing, as is apparent from the Trajtenberg Committee's documents published on the Internet, the ministry presented the need to increase the inventory of housing options for those eligible for public housing, and to expand the rent subsidies they are eligible for while waiting to receive public housing. The ministry hopes and expects that these recommendations will be implemented and the housing and construction minister plans to fight for their passage during the Knesset's winter session."

The ministry did not comment on the possibility of expanding the criteria so they can also assist those who are not currently eligible for public housing, but are nonetheless homeless. The Social Affairs Ministry responded: "The homeless are the responsibility of the Ministry of Housing. The Social Affairs Ministry runs 20 programs nationwide for the homeless. The programs include a place to sleep. It should be stressed that every street dweller willing to be taken to one of these places - there is a place for him and a warm bed. The Social Affairs Ministry, together with the local authorities, takes care of the street dwellers. This care is managed via community programs, and on a nationwide level on a broader level."