Eritrean Deemed 'Not Desperate' Enough for Homeless Residence Offered Bed in Mental Hospital

This despite Social Services Ministry’s allocation of 40 million shekels to provide housing designed for asylum seekers who are in life-threatening distress

Messel in Tel Aviv, Israel, February 27, 2019.
Meged Gozani

The Social Services Ministry is offering to house a 67-year-old homeless, disabled asylum-seeker in an institution for the mentally and developmentally disabled, even though the ministry has allocated funds to put him in housing designed for asylum-seekers in his condition. 

Several such institutions have refused to accommodate the asylum seeker, whose name is Messel. These include old-age homes that are under the supervision of the ministry, basing their rejection on Messel’s lack of health insurance. He was also refused accommodation in housing for homeless people since he was declared to be “not desperate,” according to ministry officials. 

After a year in which the state has not dealt with his issue, the ministry has told the High Court of Justice that, as an exception, he could be housed in an institution for the mentally disabled, “an institution that suits his needs,” in the words of ministry representatives.

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Such institutions are closed ones, designated for this population only, one with serious cognitive impairment. Nobody without such an impairment is housed there since they don’t receive treatment that addresses their problems. The ministry does have frameworks for homeless people and for older people who fit Messel’s condition, and Israelis in his condition are sent there.

Messel fell into homelessness a year ago, after being hit by a motorcycle while crossing the road. He sustained a head injury which deprived him of his livelihood. His memory, hearing and vision were impaired as a result of the accident, and he still suffers from pain. He cannot afford medical insurance or treatment for complications that resulted from his injury. “There’s no point in living” he told Haaretz.

For eight months after the accident, different agencies kept passing the buck in response to appeals by the non-profit ASSAF organization for refugees and asylum seekers to give him the aid he needs. One old-age home committee rejected him before discussing his case since he had no insurance. Another used the argument that he would be lonely there due to language and communication difficulties. A third required a commitment by the ministry to cover his medical expenses.

Since the Social Affairs Ministry has privatized services suitable for Messel, the state cannot compel institutions to accept him. “It can only request and recommend,” the ministry told the High Court. It added that it had unsuccessfully appealed to 11 institutions, all of which based their rejection on Messel’s lack of medical insurance.

The ministry will not place him in a home for homeless people since such a framework is meant for people “who no longer struggle to change their situation and lead a normative life.” Since Messel is trying to do that, they claim, he cannot be designated a homeless person. 

A task force at the ministry recommended allocating 40 million shekels ($11 million) for a plan to address asylum seekers who are in life-threatening distress, but little money has reached people meeting these criteria. The money transferred so far was supposed to cover 500 people, but Haaretz has found that only eight homeless or disabled people, as well as 20 battered women who were entitled to benefits even before the new plan kicked in, received any assistance, with only half the allocated funds used. The ministry failed to notify municipal social services about the new funding, causing the latter to reject applications for assistance.

The Social Affairs Ministry did, however, find housing for battered women and women who were victims of trafficking, none of whom have medical insurance. ASSAF told the court that this constituted a double standard. “One cannot take responsibility for some asylum seekers while ignoring their vulnerability, using it against them in deciding not to accept them into welfare frameworks. The respondents must consider the extreme conditions these asylum seekers find themselves in and accept them as people with language limitations and no medical insurance, since they are the most vulnerable population. One can’t expect a homeless person who cannot work, such as the plaintiff, to have medical insurance,” said ASSAF representatives.

ASSAF filed a petition against the Social Affairs Ministry, the Health Ministry and the Tel Aviv municipality. The Social Affairs Ministry told the court it had found a solution for Messel, as an exception, in a home for the mentally disabled. It includes housing, food, a treatment plan, employment opportunities and an attached community clinic. He could move in immediately. It therefore asked the court to dismiss the petition. “This is much better than the situation he is in now, as described in the petition, which claims that Messel urgently requires a roof over his head and food, so that he can undergo rehabilitation,” said the ministry.

Michal Pinchuk, ASSAF’s executive director, says that these are empty words. “We were shocked by the state’s offer to house a mentally healthy man in a home for people with mental impairment. This offer would never happen with an Israeli citizen and should not have been made. The ministry received 10 million shekels for housing people in such institutions, but in the absence of a solution to the medical insurance problem, their declaration is meaningless, as the case of Messel proves.”

According to attorney Shira Ratzon, who represents HIAS, an international non-profit that assists refugees, “This is an unfortunate case of an asylum seeker living on the street, hungry and living in unacceptable conditions. He’s been in Israel for seven years, under some kind of ‘group protection,’ but without rights. The Social Affairs Ministry can find a solution in a framework that is suitable. For two years there has been a budget for cases like this. We hope that after the court hearing a dignified and appropriate solution will be found to address his distress.”