'I Want to Live': The Struggle of Tel Aviv's Homeless Residents

The municipality of Tel Aviv counts 1,300 known homeless, but the true number is believed to be much greater. Winter brings new difficulties for the already-vulnerable population

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
A homeless individual lies on a bench in Tel Aviv, January.
A homeless individual lies on a bench in Tel Aviv, January.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

Dozens gathered around a new gravestone in the Kiryat Shaul cemetery on Sunday, just before the wind and rain of winter storm Carmel reached Tel Aviv.

The funeral was for D., a 40-year-old man, who was found dead in a park near Ichilov Hospital.

D.'s cause of death is still officially undetermined but is suspected to have been drug-related. Along with excess alcohol consumption and untreated illness, drug addiction is among the most common causes of death in the homeless population.

This isn’t surprising in cases like his, but it was hard to tell that D. was homeless by looking at him. He was pleasant, well-built and well-dressed. He also owned an apartment outside Tel Aviv, and came from a comfortably well-off family.

Three days before he died, D.'s mother had managed to get him off the street. He had eaten, showered, changed his clothes and slept at her house before heading to the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station to buy Subutex, a medication for addicts trying to wean themselves off of drugs. That was the last time she saw him.

D. lived in the streets as an addict despite having a house and a supportive family that tried throughout his life to bring him safely back home. No money was spared to find him treatment, and there was no shortage of creative solutions and appeals on his behalf to those who might be able to help.

“Every corner of this city reminds me of you,” his mother said tearfully in her eulogy. “We shared funny memories and our own words. There was a lot of chaos and noise with you. And also suffering. Now it’s quiet. Silence and a great deal of pain. I’ll miss you all my life, my boy. Your mother.” A few stars were inscribed on D.'s headstone, one of them shining above the others.

Two years ago, D. spoke with Haaretz after he was indicted for stealing a slice of pizza while drunk. “I don’t want to die in a few years,” he said. “I want treatment, I want to live.”

Over the past week, three homeless people have been found dead in the greater Tel Aviv area. Two of them are thought to have died of hypothermia, while the third supposedly died from an unrelated medical cause.

On Saturday morning patrolling police officers spotted M., a homeless man, lying on a bench in Tel Aviv’s Neve Sha’anan neighborhood. He was drenched after a night of steady rain, and cold to the touch. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

On Tuesday, a homeless man who was sheltering from the storm in a parking lot in Bat Yam crept into a storage space that housed firefighting equipment, and drank alcohol. He was found dead by his friends that afternoon.

Two hours later, a city resident found the body of a third homeless man in his building’s bomb shelter. The man was wearing a thin hospital gown from Wolfson Medical Center in Holon.

Around 40 percent of all homeless people in Israel live in the areas in and surrounding Tel Aviv, and the Tel Aviv municipality counts 1,300 known homeless people. Experts and the Social Affairs Ministry believe the actual number is much larger, since some receive no help from government agencies and therefore aren’t registered as homeless.

A Freedom of Information Act request submitted by Haaretz with help from the Hatzalah organization revealed that of all the homeless people who have died over the past three years, the cause of death of 13 remains unknown.

To determine cause of death, either a relative must approve an autopsy or the police must request one for some reason. If relatives can’t be found, generally no autopsy is performed.

The cause of death is likely not discovered because Israel doesn't have coroners like many other countries, explained Yael Doron, a social worker for the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir, which conducts autopsies. According to those consulted by Haaretz on the matter, cause of death is often based on medical staffers’ best guess.

“Life on the streets is hard," Doron said. "People die in terrible ways, and the end is difficult and not always dignified. It’s very sad, and the moment there’s no family, everything becomes much more complicated.”

The Social Affairs Ministry said in a statement that the police and the Health Ministry are the agencies responsible for determining cause of death.

During storm Carmel, the Tel Aviv Municipality announced it would open shelters for those fleeing the storm. The Social Affairs Ministry said “Ministry employees responsible for helping the homeless worked night and day to move the homeless into these shelters.”

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