For Tel Aviv's Homeless, Dying of Hunger Is a Bigger Threat Than COVID-19

Across Israel shelters are closed, restaurants no longer offer leftovers and surging numbers of addicts rely on overextended nonprofits. Protection or isolation from the coronavirus? Forget it

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
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A couple pass by a homeless man.
A couple pass by a homeless man.Credit: Rami Shllush
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

They sit on the ground. On the sidewalk. Everyone “sets” a table for himself. There's some bread here, chocolate milk there, a portion of soup – and a serving of drugs. They wear no gloves; they have no masks on their faces. While they are not always separated by the obligatory two meters in this era of the pandemic, they are separated by used syringes. At least they have lunch, these homeless people of the Neve Sha'anan neighborhood in south Tel Aviv.

The rickety benches inside what customers refer to as "the restaurant” – run under the auspices of the Lasova (meaning having a feeling of satiety in Hebrew) House for Needy People – may be off-limits until the coronavrius passes, but unlike most city residents, the homeless are still allowed to get take-out here. And the demand is great. Behind a protective plastic sheet, the NGO's staffers who are rushing about to distribute bags of food can for a moment feel like Wolt food-delivery people – minus the tips and with added risk.

“The situation is crazy, we’ve doubled the number of meals,” Ravit Reichman, who runs the Lasova soup kitchen on Chlenov Street, told Haaretz, last Friday. “Usually we feed 300-400 people a day, at the moment it’s not even noon and I’ve already fed 400 people,” she added (two hours later that number had already reached 700).

While Reichman was talking, A., a homeless woman she knows, arrived. Scratching herself and embarrassed, she opened a swollen hand, asking for food. “Smile,” said Reichman. A. gave her a broken grin. The hoped-for bag of food is handed over, and she has left to eat somewhere else.

A couple walks by a homeless man in the Israeli city of Acre, in March 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

Many of the people coming to Lasova these days are not familiar to Reichman. “Every day new faces arrive,” she said. “They don’t even look like homeless people.”

Maybe they are not homeless per se, but they are in distress; anyone with any food in the refrigerator wouldn’t come here. She explained that this new group includes asylum seekers and migrant workers who have been left without any other source of food.

According to Lasova’s figures, in the past two weeks about 250 of them have been coming daily. According to the information they give when signing up at the NGO, 210 of them are parents of infants and toddlers.

The building on Chlenov once housed Tel Aviv’s first Sephardic synagogue. Now, apparently, prayers of a different kind are uttered there.

“Yesterday an addict was lying here on the ground, motionless,” Reichman said. “I put on a protective suit so I could take care of him. Then an ambulance took him away, and he died.”

Forgotten and unseen

It was just another day in the Old Central Bus Station compound, not all that different from one in pre-corona times.

“I’m amazed at the fact that nobody sees these people, they really are transparent,” she added. “If there’s a total lockdown, who will take care of them?”

A man is waiting outside a restaurant for homeless people, run under the auspices of the Lasova House Multi-services Center for Needy People, in Tel Aviv this week.Credit: Meged Gozny

Does the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services have a solution to the plight of these individuals? Conversations that Haaretz conducted with welfare groups and government organizations reveal a complex picture. According to official data, there are 600 places for people in the so-called Gagon shelters for the homeless and in hostels, around the country. And yet those figures also show that there are about 2,000 homeless (the real number is probably much higher), about half of whom “live” in Tel Aviv, where only 125 beds have been allocated to them by the authorities.

As of early last week, there were only five vacant beds in the city. We can assume that they have since been occupied and that the demand far outstrips the supply. For their part, local welfare services say that if necessary, Tel Aviv's homeless will be sent to shelters in other cities or, if necessary, they will be housed in cheap hostels.

An examination of the situation in Tel Aviv reveals that even before a total lockdown is imposed, the homeless are clearly in distress, particularly those who are supposed to be isolating themselves at home. At present, the city's shelters are in effect under curfew: In ordinary times they fill up at night and empty out during the day; now they have turned into a kind of isolation areas. They are filled to capacity; nobody comes in and nobody goes out.

“If a coronavirus patient is discovered in the Lasova restaurant or in a Gagon, or someone who was in the vicinity of a patient – the restaurant or the Gagon will have to be closed,” Lasova founder and director Gilad Harish wrote his staff earlier this month. “Where will these people eat? Where will they sleep?”

The situation in the local rehab facilities for drug-abusers is no better. Now only 10 people undergoing treatment are allowed to stay there at any one time; in any event there isn’t a single free bed, much less an isolated one.

Hungry for food – and drugs

Back to the streets of Neve Sha'anan, perhaps the most bustling neighborhood in the city these days. The homeless wander around, prostitutes emerge from houses and cars, asylum seekers walk about in the streets. Maybe they too, or at least some of them, no longer have a roof over their heads. Also in evidence are many volunteers from different nonprofit groups, all trying to help.

Closure of local restaurants hasn't only hurt only their owners and Tel Avivians who want to enjoy life: It has also affected the homeless as well. They can no longer get a pita with kebab here, a few leftovers there. Some of the residents in this neighborhood are hungry for food, others for drugs and food.

Two men wait outside the restaurant for homeless people, run under the auspices of the Lasova House Multi-services Center for Needy People, in Tel Aviv this week. Credit: Meged Gozny

This hunger is palpable in the tense, wee hours of the night. Last Thursday, Dor Agaev, chairman of Echpat, an NGO which helps homeless people, paid a nighttime visit to the notorious “Acre path” – a dark alleyway between temporary tin shacks, in Neve Sha'anan. What he sees there is not foreign to Agaev, nor do they deter him. He himself once lived on the street.

When he arrived there on this particular night, he armed himself mainly with a face mask, gloves – and take-away trays of meatballs or chicken for those living there, a donation from the Leket Israel NGO. Everything was snapped up in no time.

While he distributed the food, Agaev’s phone didn’t stop ringing. The callers are residents of shelters he runs, frightened and in isolation. Agayev's private NGO (without any help from the government) helps homeless people rehabilitate themselves, according to a method called “housing first.” He has apartment buildings in south Tel Aviv and Bat Yam that can accommodate a total of 125 people; two to three per apartment. But tonight he has come out to help those who have no bed.

“In the past week the whole area seems to have woken up and the authorities have started to find creative solutions to the situation – I have to say a good word about that,” Agaev said, complimenting the municipality’s department for the homeless.

A homeless man in Jeruslaem, this week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“Also, without any guidance or help, our organization collected masks, gloves and alcogel for all the staff. We also have a building in Bat Yam that we leased and renovated now for those who have to be in isolation. It’s empty at the moment, but if necessary we’ll use it.”

Not far away, next to the shuttered brothels along Erlinger Street, three young men suddenly emerged.

“Do you want condoms or syringes?” they asked Agaev, with a smile. He knew who they were – members of the Yizhar project, who continue even now to offer help to local drug addicts. They distribute flyers with explanations about protection against the coronovirus; the instructions that apply in ordinary times are being reinforced now. For example, not to transfer needles or share joints.

“You’re important to us, take care of yourselves,” they called to passersby. “Go to the Gagons or the other shelters to shower and change clothes.”

Among other Yizhar guidelines for addicts regarding conduct during the current crisis: to try to maintain distance from other people, not to conduct sexual relations and also not to collect bottles for recycling.

A., for one, either didn’t hear or didn’t internalize the message. Not far away he was walking around with a cart full of bottles. At least he wasn’t hungry, he told us.

“The policemen who were here before brought me food,” he said. “It was even tasty.”

'We’re in this alone'

Along with the NGOs and the Ministry of Welfare, the organization now at the forefront in helping the city's homeless – especially in the vicinity of Neve Sha'anan – is the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality.

“We’re in this alone in this neighborhood,” a senior municipal official told Haaretz. “We’re asking the government for assistance for the asylum seekers and the homeless. There are no [municipal] rehab centers operating now and others that are operating have no room, so homeless addicts can’t go into rehab. Which is why they’re in a really problematic situation.”

Tents set up by homeless people in Tel Aviv.Credit: Meged Gozny

Meanwhile, the city-run Gagon shelters are full and very crowded.

Back to the sidewalk opposite Lasova's “restaurant” on Chelnov Street – which also has a Gagon on its upper floor, the only one in the city for women. During our visit there last week, an older man, who suffers from cancer, was lying on the ground with cream cheese smeared on his beard. He had no protective equipment, not even a simple mask.

“I try not to go near people,” he said, and immediately asked for another two slices of bread.

Reichman regarded him with compassion. “If this place didn’t exist,” she said,”they would die of malnutrition and hunger long before dying from the coronavirus.”

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