Municipal welfare departments refuse to help many homeless people because they don’t look dirty and neglected enough.
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Nor is this merely the whim of individual social workers. It stems from regulations adopted by the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry in the early 1990s, which define a homeless person as not just someone living on the streets, but as someone “in a state of physical and/or emotional neglect, who is generally disconnected or alienated from a supportive family. A homeless person doesn’t fight to change his situation and isn’t capable of maintaining a normal life.”
Gilad (not his real name) is one of the many victims of this definition. He has lived in an abandoned car in a Rishon Letzion parking lot for more than three years. He suffers from depression and other illnesses that have prevented him from working and has lost all his property. But he tries to keep clean, using a local synagogue’s hose to periodically wash himself and his clothes.
Thus when he applied to the local welfare office for the financial help promised by law – a rent subsidy of 1,000 shekels ($290) a month for four years – he was turned down.
“He isn’t neglected or dirty, he’s applied to people who can help him, he isn’t defeated and apathetic,” the welfare office wrote in its decision. “He looked clean and neat, he wore clean clothes. He wore new sneakers. The blankets with which he covers himself were neatly folded in the trunk [of the car].”
Gilad finds it outrageous that he was denied help simply because “I tried to look like a human being.” He also disputes the office’s conclusion that “because I contacted people to ask for help, this means I don’t need help.”
Aid and advocacy organizations agree. Yedid – the Association for Community Empowerment, tried to appeal his case to the Social Affairs Ministry, but it upheld the local welfare office’s decision.
Gil Gan-Mor, who heads the Right to Housing Program at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said Israel’s definition of a homeless person is unusually restrictive. In most countries, a homeless person is anyone who is living on the streets and needs “social support,” even if they aren’t dirty or apathetic.
Moreover, he said, this definition serves to whitewash the true extent of Israel’s homelessness problem. Whereas ACRI estimates that there are about 25,000 homeless people in Israel, the Social Affairs Ministry’s latest annual report counted just 1,872 homeless people in 2016.
Yoav Ben-Artzi, who heads the Tel Aviv municipality’s department for homeless people, agreed that the ministry’s data vastly understates the problem. In Tel Aviv alone, he said, the number of homeless people has risen 55 percent over the last five years.
Yedid has tracked many cases of homeless people who, like Gilad, were denied welfare assistance. They include released prisoners, minors and senior citizens, people barred from their own homes due to domestic violence and even people who simply couldn’t keep up their mortgage payments and were evicted.
Yonatan, for instance, has been sleeping in the streets or in public parks for more than a year. But like Gilad, he is careful to keep clean, and he, too, was turned down for assistance by his local welfare office. He then appealed to the regional welfare committee, which upheld the decision. The committee cited several reasons for its decision, including the fact that Yonatan is “in good and even regular contact with his mother.”
“Another characteristic necessary [for assistance] is that the homeless person isn’t fighting to change his situation and isn’t capable of living a normal life,” the committee added. “In contrast, the appellant is fighting hard to change his situation.”
The Social Affairs Ministry declined to respond to Haaretz’s questions about its criteria for defining homeless people. It said merely that it helps some 1,800 homeless people a year and that any homeless person willing to enter a shelter is given “a complete rehabilitation program” which includes medical, psychological and social services, any financial aid to which he is entitled, and employment training.
It also said that a homeless person who would rather receive a rent subsidy than enter a shelter must apply to the Housing Ministry rather than the welfare service, since the Housing Ministry “is responsible for providing housing solutions.”