Jerusalem Adopts New Storage Locker Program for the Homeless

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Bar Peleg
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A homeless man sits on a Jerusalem street, February 20, 2020.
A homeless man sits on a Jerusalem street, February 20, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

About 200 people live on the streets of Jerusalem. Neither the city, nor any other institution, knows the identity of about 50 of them who spend all their time on the streets and don’t receive any organized services. Now the municipality is putting into action the initiative of a young Jerusalem resident that could change the lives of the homeless, and maybe even help them break out of the vicious cycle.

The program – storage lockers – is inspired by a model that succeeded in Lisbon. It’s based on the premise that the lack of storage space for property and the fear of having it stolen are the main problems of the homeless. Moreover, research has shown that providing homeless people with personal space resurrects their sense of having a safe space and belonging. Five years after the project was launched in Lisbon, 67 percent of participants were rehabilitated and left the streets – and 90 percent said their lives had improved significantly since they received the locker.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 63

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Over the next few months, the city will install 12 storage lockers in the downtown area, a few hundred meters from Independence Park in the center of the city. A representative of the Home Base nonprofit group will be in charge of encouraging the homeless to use the lockers as part of the journey to leave the streets, and help them in receiving the rights they awere entitled to and dealing with social service agencies. The city has spent 155,000 shekels ($45,300) on the project, and another 65,000 shekels is to be raised from crowdfunding.

In spite of the great success in Lisbon, locker projects are very new and it is still unclear how well they have worked in the long term in other countries where the idea is being tested. For example, in Denver and Stockholm the projects failed and were closed down after almost a year: The homeless would spend time inside the lockers to keep off the streets, in a manner that endangered them even more because the lockers had no ventilation. Some were vandalized and damaged, too. One idea to solve these problems was to place them only in a fenced off area, with access allowed only to homeless people who are looking for work or trying to leave the streets.

Jerusalem winters

The seeds of the project were planted in the winter of 2019 following a conversation between 28-year-old Jerusalem resident Niv Balush and a homeless person. “I sat down next to him and said: ‘Can I ask you a personal question? How did you get to the street and how is it you don’t have a blanket?’” Balush told Haaretz. The homeless man told Balush his life story, which included language difficulties in Israel after he made aliyah from Iraq, a serious injury that ruined his health and debts that ballooned until he finally gave up and found himself on the street. He recounted how his money and documents had been stolen from his cupboard in a hostel for the homeless, and since then he hasn’t gone back to such places.

The lockers are big enough to hold a mattress, blankets and bag and have a shelf for documents and a mailbox. “The locker plan is not a magic solution for every city,” said Balush. The planning took a year and was adapted to Jerusalem and its homeless population, which is very different than that of Tel Aviv, for example.

The city’s statistics show about 200 homeless people aged 26 and up, most of whom are Israeli citizens. A third are addicted to drugs, and a number also have mental health problems. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that city inspectors were not allowed to throw away the belongings of the homeless, even if they were left in public areas. The court ruled that the inspectors must first examine whether the belongings are required for their basic needs, such as bags, mattresses and blankets. If the items are not considered basic needs, then the inspectors are allowed to remove them to a designated storage area for a specified period – and this, only after they ask the homeless person to remove the belongings themselves.

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