'Despair Is a Volatile Substance'

Moshe Silman's self-immolation last Saturday served to shine a light on the financial plight of the lower middle classes. The Yedid nonprofit group, which seeks to help such people, says the welfare system cannot deal with this burgeoning problem.

Yonah Ditman-Perlson, director of the Ashdod branch of Yedid, opened her office doors at 9 A.M. on Wednesday morning. Fifteen people were outside, seeking the assistance of the nonprofit community empowerment association. One by one, they entered. Some needed help formulating appeals to creditors who were about to take possession of their belongings; others were searching for cheap housing or for help in staving off eviction; some wanted to appeal National Insurance Institute decisions; others were embroiled in disputes with employers. By the mid-day break at 1 P.M., the five Yedid workers, some of them volunteers, had dealt with some 25 appeals. At 4, the office opened anew. Within two hours, another 25 cases had been handled.

Piled on Ditman-Perlson's desk were dozens of files that Yedid had started to work on. Atop the filing cabinet at the side of her office were dozens more, awaiting answers.

One woman on this particular morning asked whether a monthly debt repayment could be refinanced to NIS 600 a month, not NIS 1,000, because "they are closing in on us from all sides, and we can't make ends meet." A new immigrant inquired whether he was eligible for a discount on city taxes, and a few minutes later a woman tried to clarify how to handle a mortgage debt, which has grown from NIS 68,000 to NIS 98,000. "I'm doing my best to stay afloat, but I'm drowning," she moaned.

Each assistance seeker entered Ditman-Perlson's office armed with a stack of documents: wage slips, letters to ministries, threatening creditors' letters, and so on. Among those who turn to Yedid are new immigrants, veteran Israelis, senior citizens, young people in fashionable dress and single mothers. Some receive social welfare payments, others are employed but do not earn enough to break the stranglehold of debt. Some could be classified as lower-middle class, others clearly belong to the lower class.

Like dominoes

In the week since Moshe Silman's self-immolation at the demonstration marking a year since the eruption of the social protest last summer, 16 Yedid branches - from the Negev to the Galilee - handled increasing numbers of appeals. During the first half of 2012, the organization dealt with 12,000 cases, an increase of 20 percent compared to the same period in the preceding year. The heavier workload had to be dealt with by an organization that closed five offices and reduced the work week to three days in other branches last year. All told, during 2011 19,500 cases were handled by Yedid, considered the leading NPO in Israel in the field of legal aid and rights advocacy.

Margarita Simanovski, 50, first visited Yedid's Ashdod center two years ago when, together with her brother Alexander, she faced eviction. In the late 1990s, the two of them took out a mortgage with one of the banks. Margarita has worked at a number of jobs but her brother has maintained a steady income of NIS 6,500. With the help of an income supplement payment received by Margarita, the siblings managed to make their mortgage payments for about a decade. By the end of the 2000s, the monthly payment had risen to NIS 3,000. Then Alexander suffered a stroke and had to stop working. Their total monthly income stood at NIS 4,600.

"We can't make our mortgage payments," she says now, explaining that for two years they fought, via Yedid, to annul the eviction notice and to adjust their mortgage repayment schedule with the bank. During that period, "I cried all the time," she recalls. "I was afraid each time I left the house."

"The government talks about a social welfare safety net - if only there were such a thing" to provide built-in assistance for struggling Israelis, reflects Ditman-Perlson. "People who come to us have no outside source for financial and social-welfare help; any financial setback, no matter how small, throws them into a tailspin."

Yedid was established in 1997. Up until recent years, most people who sought its help came from lower income groups.

"We are now witnessing the rapid decline of the lower bracket of the middle class," explains Yedid's deputy director, attorney Yuval Elbashan, who is responsible for its network of citizens rights centers' legal activities. "These people are well prepared when they come to us. They have already received negative answers from the NII, and so they want to know how they should wage a legal struggle against it. This is a totally different sort of constituency.

"The social welfare system is equipped mainly to deal with the impoverished population," he continues. "That's understandable, but one has to understand that the middle class has been doubly hurt: The government does not provide a safety net during rough times, and also the system does not provide an incentive to people to regain their middle-class status as quickly as possible [after a financial setback], since doing so would entail losing the small benefits they receive. Moshe Silman belongs more to the middle class than to the ranks of the impoverished. He worked, he had a business. Due to a chain of events, not all of them events he could have controlled, he became mired in poverty. We have hundreds of such cases. Despair is a very volatile substance."

Last week, 14 people who had come into Yedid's offices threatened to commit suicide. The organization decided not to take any chances; its workers are not trained to deal with suicidal clients. It thus adopted a new policy of reporting such cases to local social welfare authorities.

Moshe Silman asked for rent payment assistance from the Housing and Construction Ministry several times. His requests were rejected on the grounds that such assistance cannot be conferred to anyone who is a homeowner, or who has owned a house during the past 40 years. This last clause slams the door in the face of someone whose circumstances have eroded rapidly in recent years. Yedid is currently trying to help a family in Ashdod that has endured such a collapse, and extricating persons in such straits is no easy feat.

The father in this family works in maintenance, and earns NIS 3,250 a month. The mother does not work; she takes care of her small children at home. Two years ago, the family sold its apartment to pay back old debts; any spare income generated by the house sale was used to pay rent. The reserve quickly dried up. Today, the family owes NIS 16,800 to the apartment's owner.

Ten days ago, the Housing Ministry's department for public appeals responded to a request submitted by the father. "According to procedures followed for providing rental assistance," they wrote, "homeless persons are eligible for help; these are persons who have not owned an apartment, or part of an apartment since June 1971. You are a couple with four children, and you owned an apartment in the past. You live on the basis of wages earned from employment. Under the rules, you are not entitled to rental assistance provided by our department ... Despite all the circumstances, there is no possibility of deviating from procedure. Unfortunately, and though the department is sympathetic to your plight, it has no way of assisting you."

Bureaucratic red tape and fastidious compliance to rules constitute just part of the problem. "In fact, compliance with bureaucratic rules is an easy way to dodge a substantive discussion of the policy enforced by those rules," says attorney Yael Kesten-Ravski, from Yedid's Ashdod branch.

The government's rapid, but, to date, only response to Silman's attempted suicide was the establishment of a special committee headed by the directors general of the NII, and the Social Affairs Ministry. This committee's mandate is to identify extreme cases of social distress and provide solutions. This is a cautious response, and it reflects the philosophy which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly articulated after the Silman tragedy: the act of self-immolation, Netanyahu insisted, is a personal tragedy.

Addressing needs?

"Committees for extraordinary cases miss the point," says Dr. Emily Silverman, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Silverman, who has a PhD in social policy and headed the housing team on the alternative committee of experts founded last summer after the protest movement erupted, declares that "the safety net provided by the welfare state has collapsed. Instead of repairing it, they are now trying to find its most porous holes. [Moshe] Silman represents genuine distress felt by tens of thousands of persons, that results from the absence of public assistance and allocations to needy people in the housing sphere."

On Tuesday, the Knesset observed Public Housing Day, an event that had been scheduled several months earlier, long before Silman's act of despair. The event reflected the government's lack of a program to address the urgent needs of 2,400 families, along with 40,000 older people and immigrants - all on the public housing waiting list.

More than 100 activists turned up for the event's main discussion; they were welcomed by just five or six MKs. Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias was a last-minute no-show. "Without the involvement of the Finance Ministry, which opposes the expansion of the number of units available for public housing, there's no point in my turning up," Atias said, justifying his sudden decision.

Since neither Atias nor any other government representative was on hand, the activists' anger began to boil over. One of them, Zahava Grinfeld, exclaimed: "The housing and construction minister is not here, but maybe miracles will come from the sky. Your government created this emergency. Moshe Silman's act is not a personal tragedy. We, activists and public-housing seekers, demand that you provide an immediate solution to this crisis. People who live on the street and live without dignity cannot wait. We demand that you do your job."

It's not clear who heard these calls for government action. Atias is trying to legislate a bill that would set aside 5 percent of any land area zoned by the state for public housing. In comparison to other countries, such an allocation for would be a minimal gesture: Last October, the European Union issued a report disclosing that 27 percent of new construction projects should be set aside for public housing; in Denmark and the Netherlands, the current figures are 22 percent and 19 percent, respectively. Atias' proposal is vehemently opposed by the treasury.

The Finance Ministry argues that the implementation of Atias' plan would deprive the state of NIS 1.8 billion in revenue. The ministry apparently opposes the proposal for additional reasons. Some Finance Ministry officials suggest that the execution of Atias' proposal would actually harm public housing tenants - owing to the relatively high construction standards demanded of new housing projects, particularly in the center of the country.

"Monthly service charges and city tax fees are very expensive in these new housing projects. People who need public housing assistance would not be able to make such payments. Housing them in such projects is unrealistic," these officials contend.

Rather than setting aside five percent of each new plot for public housing, the Finance Ministry proposes improving rental assistance allocations. This currently costs the state NIS 1.46 billion and is provided to 137,000 people. The sum was increased two months ago, after a fierce struggle in the ministry.

"The starting point of the ministry's analysis," Silverman contends, "is that public housing is not a legitimate solution. That is the reason why new housing units aren't built, and why apartments aren't purchased for the needy. Rent assistance will force the poor to concentrate in poor areas, because each shekel purchases more on the periphery. The policy ought to be the exact opposite: to encourage the poor to escape from impoverished areas."

Daniel Tchetchik