How Decriminalizing Addiction and Prostitution Could Save a Tel Aviv Neighborhood

After studying the denizens of one of the most derelict spots in Israel two researchers recommend providing the down-and-out with safe spaces for 'deviant' behavior.

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

For their first observations they kept their distance, took care to stay on the main streets with better lighting. The area of the old Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv is well known for inviting trouble. But as time went on the tension between them and their subjects diminished.

The two researchers, Dr. Hagit Bonny-Noach and attorney Sharon Toys, allowed themselves to enter dark alleyways, to approach drug addicts and prostitutes and talk to them. They connected with the transsexuals who sell their bodies and made connections with the employees of the stores in what is the most desolate spot in Tel Aviv, if not in the entire country.

For over two years, from the end of 2010 until early 2013, the two criminologists visited the area of the old bus station. They observed, took notes, conducted casual conversations and regular interviews. “In this study we wanted to present the worldviews and voices of a range of people who live around the bus station,” said Bonny-Noach. “Those whom we call transparent, the others, the deviants. Their voice is missing from the public debate. We wanted to give them a voice, to see what they think.”

At the beginning of their work, the two sat on the Solomon Street stepway. Out of fear they did not bring a camera or recording device with them, but only documented the goings-on in writing. The night life passed before them: Homeless people relieving themselves in the street in front of everyone, prostitutes having sex in the dark alleys, drug addicts injecting themselves on the sidewalk, drunks fighting; all this became routine. During their research the pair also noticed that the police presence in the area grew steadily, but the situation never changed.

Rooms for prostitutes, needles for addicts

Bonny-Noach, a criminologist and sociologist, teaches at Beit Berl College and Ariel University, and she is also an adviser to the Israel Anti-Drug Authority. Toys is a lawyer and criminologist, a lecturer at Ariel University who is finishing his Ph.D. at Hebrew University. They did not make do with just analyzing the complex situation in the area, but also formulated surprising recommendations for a major change in policy. Their proposal calls for radical damage control, which is being implemented now in only a few countries. This approach is based on the idea that there are activities that cannot be eliminated, such as drug addiction and prostitution. Toys and Bonny-Noach recommend constructing proper rooms where addicts can shoot up - under medical supervision. They also call for providing synthetic heroin to addicts who cannot be detoxified speedily. Furthermore, they propose establishing a place where prostitutes can work under supervision.

These recommendations address the two most conspicuous and resilient populations in the area, but the researchers also gave suggestions to others who are down and out, including the opening of a free hostel for anyone who needs it to sleep, and installation of automatic dispensing machines for replacing needles and providing condoms.

“Criminologists define the area of the old bus station as a ‘hot spot.’ Like in an economic model where 20 percent of the customers contribute 80 percent of the profit, here there are also areas where most of the crime take place,” said Bonny-Noach. “The area of the bus station is a ‘passageway’ to Tel Aviv, and it is known throughout the country. There is no physical border to the area, but you know when you enter it. The border is a moral one, and you can tell the entire area is one of deviance.

“Even if you work there in something normative, in legal businesses, it is a form of deviance. Who works there all night in a compound that is all deviance, where the only people who belong there are prostitutes and the homeless?” she said. “We were told to leave a few times, ‘Get out of here, there’s nothing for you here,’ because they were worried for us. The people there at night are looking for something. Looking for action - sex, drugs, to sell stolen goods, companionship, human warmth. We defined the bus station area as occupied territory. Who conquered it? The deviants at night.”

Expecting criticism

Most Israelis, even those who live nearby, avoid visiting the area after dark. It takes everyone in, especially those with nowhere else to go, such as newly released prisoners. “In Tel Baruch [an area of prostitution near the beach in north Tel Aviv] not every prostitute is accepted - at the bus station they are,” said Bonny-Noach. “The people there describe themselves as the bottom of the bottom.”

Toys and Bonny-Noach were to present their findings on Sunday at a conference conducted by Beit Berl College and the Elem - Youth in Distress NGO on “the significance of a lack of a home in the development of young people.” The researchers are expecting criticism. Their view is quite controversial in Israel and elsewhere. If you pass out syringes and needles to everyone who asks, say the critics, it will encourage addicts to continue to use hard drugs. Opening shelters for the homeless, they continue, will remove any reason for the homeless to rehabilitate themselves.

But Bonny-Noach says she is talking only about the people at the farthest edges of society, not every prostitute or drug user. For these people at the extremes, only a radical solution will work, she says. “Our recommendations go hand in hand with treatment. But you must also understand that maybe in a certain time period they will not want this treatment. What is preferable, that they should die from an overdose, that someone should murder them in the street? It would be wonderful if we could cure all of them and there would be no prostitution, but if it already exists, let us make it humane,” she said.

The Social Affairs Ministry and the Tel Aviv municipality did not respond to Haaretz’s request for comment on the findings.

An addict prepares to inject a needle into his arm near Tel Aviv's central bus station.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
The old Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Dr. Hagit Bonny-Noach (right) and attorney Sharon Toys.Credit: Moti Milrod

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