M. has been living on the street for nine months now, passing every season of the year under the open sky. At his age, 67, it’s not getting easier. “I look for places to sleep where I won’t be cold. I don’t even have a blanket,” he told Haaretz last week. “Sometimes it’s a stairwell, sometimes a sidewalk where there’s a balcony over it that keeps the rain off a bit,” he added.
Until March, M. had been working and was able to pay for a roof over his head, but then he was struck by a motorcycle and diagnosed with a severe head injury that robbed him of the ability to work. Since then he has been completely dependent on social services, but he isn’t given any. M. is an asylum seeker from Eritrea.
Asylum seekers like M. are supposed to receive help from social service agencies. And a little over a year ago, he became one of hundreds of asylum seekers for whose care millions of shekels were given to the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry.
Following harsh criticism by the state comptroller’s report in 2014, a special committee of the ministry recommended for the first time a grant of 40 million shekels ($10.6 million) for a program for asylum seekers designated as being in life-threatening distress. The Finance Ministry even earmarked funding for the program. To implement it, at least partially, the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry received 10 million shekels in the last quarter of 2017. This funding was to have provided aid for one quarter of the asylum seekers it was intended for – about 500 people.
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But Haaretz checked and found that in fact, only eight homeless and disabled asylum seekers and about 20 female victims of domestic violence, who were entitled to the funding even before that, received social services, and that only half of the amount has been used so far. The Social Services Ministry did not inform the municipal social services that the funding had been made available, and consequently the municipal social services continued to reject requests for aid.
Senior ministry officials, for their part, ignored the small number of requests they received through assistance groups for help to homeless and disabled asylum seekers.
Orit Marom, an official at the NGO Assaf, which aids asylum seekers, said the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry “is lying around unused, while people don’t have a roof over their heads, some are sick or disabled, sleeping in the rain and cold in public parks. We’re sick and tired of hearing senior ministry officials talk about the ministry’s good intentions because we are the ones who see the daily suffering.”
According to ministry professionals, the reason the funding is not utilized for people like M. is because asylum seekers don’t have insurance through the Health Ministry. They said the 5 million shekels that have been spent were used only for those 28 asylum seekers, and that the millions more the ministry received for this purpose could help only dozens, not hundreds of people, as it was supposed to have done at first.
M. hopes that now, after many months in limbo, he will be one of those to receive assistance, but after the troubles he has had over the past months, he finds it hard to stay optimistic. In May, the NGO Assaf, which assists asylum seekers, sent an urgent request regarding M. to the head of the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry’s unit for the homeless, Maria Podgietzky. The latter responded that she was not the right address for the request and that Assaf should redirect it to the head of services for senior citizens, Galit Mevorach. The latter said that senior citizens homes under the ministry’ supervision could find him a place but he would have to purchase health insurance – a costly item for a person with no income.
A request to a committee that examines exceptional cases was useless. The committee said that homeless people are the responsibility of the municipal social services department. But the latter were not aware that the money was available for it to help.
Only last week, after dozens of messages from Assaf and members of Knesset, did the ministry say it could find a place for M. in a senior citizens home in Rishon Letzion. But here too, the offer was useless because M. cannot afford the required health insurance. “I don’t have money to eat. Most nights I go to sleep hungry. I’m half-dead, half-alive. Just let them give me a place to sleep,” he told Haaretz.
A senior municipal social services official in one of the cities with a large number of asylum seekers told Haaretz: “We received no message about funding available. We refused to deal with any case that was not of a battered woman or children at risk. As sad as it is, if someone tells me ‘I have nowhere to sleep tonight’ I tell them, ‘that’s your problem.’”
In Jerusalem, where about 1,500 asylum seekers live, Haaretz was told that the municipal social services department was completely unaware that additional funding had been received for them and that they are working with a translator and community worker through municipal funding and fundraising.
In Petah Tikva, a city east of Tel Aviv, where about 2,500 asylum seekers live – the second largest concentration after Tel Aviv – Haaretz was told that the municipality had received no allocation of positions for assisting asylum seekers. In the southern city of Ashdod, where about 1,000 asylum seekers reside, Haaretz was told municipal workers had received no instructions for treating additional groups.
This week, after a query from Haaretz, a few social service departments said they had been told that they had been allocated funding earmarked for the treatment of asylum-seeker children and asylum seekers at risk and their families. “This is not a government ministry, it’s a PR office. For more than a year they don’t tell us there’s money, and only after a newspaper intervenes, do we get a position,” a social worker on one of the departments said.
When representatives of the ministry were asked why the municipalities had not been informed of the funding, the answer was: “Due to the character and complexity of the problem,” the cases in question are referred to the ministry at the national level. “The funding was not transferred to the local authorities. The funding was transferred to earmarked clauses in the social services, utilized at the national level” and paid to “end-user treatment frameworks.”
When asked if the funding allocation had been publicized to municipal social services, the ministry responded that directors general of the ministry had been informed, including details of the funding, and that funding for translation services had begun only last month. The ministry also said that in addition to directors general, its district supervisors had also been informed of the allocations, but heads of social service departments and social workers had not.
The Union of Local Authorities in Israel, where the work of some of the municipal social services is concentrated, said that assistance by the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry was “point-by-point,” “lacking,” and “does not conform to the needs of this community.”
Inbal Hermoni, chairwoman of the social workers union, said: “It is our moral and social obligation to care for those living among us, as long as they are here, and to provide them with social services, even the most basic ones,” she said.
The Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry responded: “The ministry does not ignore requests for assistance, but gives assistance for life-threatening circumstances only. ... A good many of the requests from Assaf are for housing problems that the ministry cannot deal with. Nevertheless, any person whose problems are included in the work of the ministry will receive a response. We stress that without [medical insurance] it is very difficult to respond completely to the problems. If there is additional funding, we can deal with the problem after the legal issue in the matter is resolved. At this time the ministry is establishing a framework for the homeless and we are at the end of a process of tenders and finding an operator.”