Number of Israeli Homeless Grew 27 Percent Last Year Amid COVID Economic Distress

Experts, however, say that the number of homeless known to the authorities is much lower than the real number

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
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A homeless man in Tel Aviv last year.
A homeless man in Tel Aviv last year.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

The number of homeless people in Israel receiving help from the government rose by 27 percent in 2020 as the coronavirus caused a rise in joblessness and economic distress, data from Israel's Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry reveal.

According to the report, 450 of the 733 new homeless cases reported last year are receiving support from the Social Services Ministry, with 283 others receiving aid by other government departments. This is because their main problem is not a lack of housing. But experts say the number of homeless known to the authorities, estimated to number 3,471 people at the end of last year, is much lower than the real number because thousands do not conform to the official definition.

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A breakdown of the numbers show that of the 450 people who were recognized as homeless for the first time last year, 60 percent had been living on the street for a long time but only turned for help when their financial situation deteriorated sharply. Nearly a third were people who had previously found housing, only to be driven back to the streets by the economic fallout of the pandemic. Ten percent of the new cases were people who had been made homelessness for the first time by the epidemic.

Officials said that many long-term homeless people only turned to social workers after their income, which could include panhandling and collecting bottles for deposit money, dried up amid COVID-related closures and restrictions. They also found it harder to feed themselves, since the restaurants and soup kitchens they patronized were shuttered.

“These are people who suddenly lost the ability to survive on their own in the streets. Some of them didn’t seek treatment and didn’t want the benefits they were entitled to. All they wanted was food,” a source at the Social Services Ministry told Haaretz.

Officials said another reason they turned to welfare authorities was because during the pandemic, the government began opening homeless shelters 24 hours a day. Prior to that, the shelters only opened in the evening.

A homeless person in Jerusalem last year.Credit: Emil Salman

According to partial data, in the first half of 2021, there were 319 additional numbers who sought services from the ministry. Due to this data, the Social Services Ministry expects that there will be a further increase in the number of homeless this year.

This was also the case in August of last year, when it was reported in Haaretz that there was an increase in the number of "new" homeless, from data collected after half a year had passed.

"We are identifying a very alarming increase of hundreds of homeless in recent months as a result of the crisis. We believe this is just the beginning and that in the coming months the situation will be much more serious," said the then-field director of issues pertaining to the homeless community at the Social Services Ministry.

With the data gathered a year later, a source in the ministry said: "What we said during the coronavirus crisis is that the real increase in the number of homeless would be seen soon. Now we are starting to see those results."

David Agaev, chairman of the Ichpat organization that helps homeless find housing in the Tel Aviv and Bat Yam area, said that in the past year, the association's members have noticed some changes in the composition of those who seek assistance from them. For example, people who came from the north of the country to find work in the center, LGBT people from Arab society, and the formerly incarcerated who were released before the end of their term due to overcrowding in prisons.

“Every week I see 10-15 prisoners on administrative release, and they have nowhere to go,” he said. He says that he "sees fewer people from the new Soviet Union on the street. If it's immigrants then it's mostly children of immigrants and not new immigrants. There is a surprise in that there are more 'sabras', those who seem to have more of a family envelope."

The ministry reported that they have opened five additional centers to aid the homeless population across the country in the past year and a half. According to the ministry's regulations, every municipality with more than 15 homeless is required to open a designated center. Until 2019, 15 centers operated throughout the country, but due to the increase, in 2020 and 2021, additional centers were also opened in Eilat, Ofakim, Beit Shemesh, Holon and Kiryat Gat.

The government officially recognizes only part of the homeless population: Among others, the tally doesn’t include minors, people temporarily living in a transitional location, violent people who have been taken away from their families for extended periods and newly released prisoners. The ministry admits that there are hundreds of homeless who do not fit the official definition, but some experts believe the real number is in the thousands.

Tammy Barsheshet, the head of the welfare and community department at the Pardes Hanna-Karkur Regional Council and chairperson of an organization of local authority welfare chiefs, is among those who say that the number of newly homeless is much greater than reported. Her organization’s data shows that the phenomenon cuts across sectors, class and geographical regions, including the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors, and is independent of socioeconomic conditions in the local authorities they live in.

“Typically, homeless people used to live in big cities, but now it exists everywhere in Israel,” said Barsheshet. “Because of the coronavirus crisis, many people who lost their jobs or were put on unpaid leave and never returned to the labor force were compelled to give up the apartments they were renting. Some of them became street people, while others took to living in warehouses, shelters or places unfit for human habitation. They are not recognized as homeless, but the conditions they live are nearly tantamount to living in the street.”

The government was supposed to have established an inter-ministerial committee in February last year to deal with homelessness and addiction, given the absence of a single body. But to date, it hasn’t happened yet: Even as their numbers continue to grow, people seeking help have to go from one office to another.

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