Tel Aviv, Lagging Behind in Helping the Homeless, Embraces a New York Program

The Housing First apartment and rehab system has been working for 30 years – maybe a good solution for Tel Aviv, which is handling 41 percent more homeless cases than five years ago

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A homeless man in Tel Aviv, 2019.
A homeless man in Tel Aviv, 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

It’s hard being homeless in Tel Aviv, even more so during this winter of heavy rainstorms, flooding and below-normal temperatures. But there are still homeless people who turn down the meager solutions that city hall offers them – and remain on the streets.

Late one night in the city’s south this week, members of the city’s unit for the homeless tried to convince a man to go to one of the city’s homeless shelters, which have existed for 28 years now. These havens are only an initial solution: a clean bed, hot shower, meals, medical care and entry into a rehabilitation program. But sometimes the homeless prefer the second option: a cup of tea and back to the streets.

“People definitely think that everything is okay; the shelters in the city are suitable. But there certainly isn’t any treatment or rehab there,” the man in the street told the members of the homeless unit. He said that “only one out of a hundred succeeds.”

The man is right: Tel Aviv’s homeless unit is handling 41 percent more cases than five years ago, and it has been a long time since there have been enough beds. The city has only three shelters today, with about 100 beds. The largest is used for male addicts, one is for women, and the third is for men free of addictions. The city also has seven so-called transition apartments with room for 42 people.

And there are many problems with the shelters, which are run by the nonprofit group Lasova with funding from the city. There are lots of bunk beds and no privacy. The rooms in the shelters have no doors. Sometimes the building is locked; except during a major storm, residents must leave the building by 9 A.M. and are allowed back in the evening – for those who manage to return.

According to the model, the condition for receiving housing is continuous treatment; otherwise, residents must leave the program. Lasova’s chairman, Gil-Ad Harish, is aware that the hostels “are not the best solution – they’re are the lesser of all evils,” he says.

Harish calls them the first stop after the street, “the first step toward rehabilitation. It’s a shelter where anyone can come in any state and not be turned away. There are people who come injured and sick; we accept everyone, except for those with contagious diseases. When someone comes from the street, the shelter is a palace for them.”

Now, given the surging numbers of homeless – and amid protests by south Tel Avivians against the many African asylum seekers in their neighborhoods – the municipality is beginning to talk about a major change. The idea is to import a housing and rehabilitation plan from the United States and other countries that has been in use for 30 years after starting in New York, Housing First. But the road to implementation is long.

A homeless man in south Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A basic human right

Housing First is in its very early planning stages in Israel, but the city staff members realize that a new way of thinking is needed. The program has housed the homeless in many cities around the United States and in countries such as France, Denmark and Finland.

There are only two principles behind Housing First, says Shmulik Szeintuch, who teaches social work at Sapir Academic College. As he puts it, the first is “pay 30 percent of your income to the program, and the second is that a representative of the program can always come and visit you, in coordination with you, in your home.” (Originally, the program was based on a rent subsidy and welfare payments.)

Residents receive a number of benefits if they meet those two conditions; for example, the regular one-room apartment is available to the resident 24/7. According to this approach, the right to housing is a basic human right.

“Housing First is a 24/7 model until the person decides to leave the program,” Szeintuch says. “This 24/7 support lets me work with the homeless on everything I want to for as long as they want.”

So far, the program has been considered an amazing success; in New York the success rate is around 85 percent. Most of the treatment providers recommend it as the best way to deal with homelessness.

“The homeless have two main needs, housing and support,” Szeintuch says, adding that the integration of the two is the secret.

Tel Aviv City Hall says that for the plan to be adopted by Israel’s social services authorities, government ministries must take part.

“The moment the Knesset returns to work, this proposal will be submitted to the relevant government ministries. It’s far from implementation, but it’s a declaration of intentions,” a senior municipal official says.

A few months ago, a delegation of city officials visited Boston to learn more about the system. One main challenge is to prove how Housing First’s shelters and rehab will save the government money, a city official says.

A homeless man in south Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

But in addition to the need for government money, Szeintuch mentions a number of other problems in copying the model in Israel. One is the high price of housing in cities like Tel Aviv, and others include the Israeli habit of investing in short-term “Band-Aid solutions,” not to mention the “not in my backyard” syndrome that slows the integration of the homeless into the community.

Gili Tamir of the Public Defender’s Office notes that Housing First solved the homeless’ problem in renting an apartment, because they won’t be the ones directly renting the place.

“Today, homeless people receive rent assistance that could help them rent a room, even in south Tel Aviv,” Tamir says. “But who will provide a guarantee for the homeless, who will sign a financial guarantee for the owner? So no one rents to them.”

Good neighbor policy

While Tel Aviv is considering the advantages and disadvantages of Housing First, someone else is already putting it into practice elsewhere – even if only on a limited basis. For over three years the nonprofit group Echpat has been providing 124 beds in south Tel Aviv and neighboring Bat Yam, based on the New York model.

Because the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry does not officially recognize the group’s work, its business model is based on the money the homeless receive from the Housing and Construction Ministry as rent support, along with other allowances provided by the National Insurance Institute – in addition to donations.

Those who rent apartments must meet two main conditions: They must be in a drug rehabilitation program and they must be good neighbors. “The rehab should not come at the expense of the neighborhood’s residents,” Echpat director David Agaev says, adding that the group once even moved out of an apartment on the neighbors’ request.

“The main idea is rehabilitation in normal neighborhoods, using a combination of the city’s addiction unit and in the end full integration into the workforce,” he adds.

Of the 124 formerly homeless people in Echpat’s program, 94 have been clean from drugs for two years, Agaev says. Every week, he receives about 50 to 60 requests for help, some of which come through the city.

A homeless man in Tel Aviv, 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani

Tel Aviv City Hall adds that its social services department is carefully studying the Housing First model. City officials are in contact with experts and their colleagues in large U.S. cities where the program is run, but it’s still too early to provide details.

“Without a doubt, the issue of treatment for the homeless is one of the most Sisyphean in our work,” the city said in a statement. “Despite endless attempts, increased budgets and intensive treatment, the reality is that the existing solutions are short-term and in too many cases don’t free the homeless from the circle of suffering. Still, we are not giving up and are examining innovative methods used around the world.”

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