Israel's Welfare Ministry Report Faults Own Handling of Homeless People’s Problems

According to data and estimates, there are some 2,300 people living on the streets in Israel, but only 1,300 of them are recognized as homeless and receive help from social services.

Homeless on a Tel Aviv street, November 2015.
Tomer Appelbaum

An internal Social Affairs Ministry report reveals numerous problems in the government’s handling of those living on the street, including a very restrictive definition of the phenomenon and the division of responsibility among several ministries that leads homeless people to fall through the bureaucratic cracks.

According to data and estimates, there are some 2,300 people living on the streets in Israel, but only 1,300 of them are recognized as homeless and receive help from social services.

The report, obtained by Haaretz, includes a study stating that the restrictive definition of “street resident,” means that “only a small portion of those living in public areas are treated under the auspices” of the ministry’s unit that deals with street people. The definition, the authors say, “reduces the ability to deal with those living in the street who do not meet the definition: Minors, the elderly, released prisoners, and those who have been distanced from their homes because of domestic violence.”

Unlike in other Western countries, which have a system for dealing with the homeless as well as initiatives to reduce the phenomenon, Israel deals only with those who meet the definition of street people set in the social work regulations, the report said. “Those who don’t meet these definitions either get no treatment or only partial treatment,” it said.

The division of responsibility for these people among the health, social affairs, and housing ministries “makes it difficult to develop a policy of preliminary prevention.” This division is the result of the strict distinction made between those defined as “street residents,” and those defined as “homeless” or “living in public places.”

The study did a survey among 270 street residents and found that half of them had been in prison, with 27 percent imprisoned for more than a year. Two-thirds of them use drugs or alcohol. The report notes that those with “double morbidity” – addicted to drugs or alcohol and suffering from mental illness – “have no designated framework that helps the patient navigate between the various treatment channels in the Health Ministry and Social Affairs Ministry. This is the toughest type of case to treat.”

The subjects were asked how they ended up in the street. One of the main reasons they cited was addiction to drugs or alcohol, mentioned by 24 percent of them. This factor came ahead of economic problems or unemployment (cited by 17 percent) or mental or health problems (10 percent). Sixty-four percent had not worked in the previous year. The street people’s three primary sources of income were National Insurance allowances, which 47 percent receive, collecting bottles to redeem for the deposits, and begging.

Another problem is the attitude toward street residents who refuse treatment from the authorities. In the United States, for example, the authorities make independent housing and support services available to the homeless without conditioning access on entering a detoxification program or getting psychiatric help.

Last week a subcommittee of the Labor, Welfare and Health Committee for dealing with homeless young adults met for the first time. At that meeting, the director of the Teen and Youth Service in the Social Affairs Ministry, Tzipi Nahshon-Glick, said that starting in 2016 an additional 19 million shekels ($4.9 million) annually would be allocated to find solutions for homeless persons aged 18-25.