Two decades ago, it was hard to find a homeless person in Tel Aviv. Homelessness was something that many thought would never happen here, thanks to the close-knit Israeli society; it was seen as a characteristic of big cities in the West. But much has changed since then. Today, one can see many homeless people in the streets of Tel Aviv, in various states of neglect.
About a year ago, a homeless person in poor physical condition was lying outside the Ishay Rozen's apartment in south Tel Aviv. “I wanted to help him and I didn’t even know how to approach him,” said Rozen, a 30-year-old who is now finishing his fourth year of studies in the interactive media department at the Avni Institute of Art and Design.
Rozen called the municipal hotline, which sent over a blanket and some water, and the next day, the homeless man was gone. But Rozen continued thinking about his unexpected guest.
“I thought about him, about what brought him into the street, and how without a doubt he has a whole life story behind him. I felt that anyone could wind up on the street at any moment.”
From this was born his final project — a set of graffiti murals in the city’s Florentin neighborhood that show the homeless people of Tel Aviv. Each drawing is accompanied by a text about the person depicted, and gives general information about the homeless population. The project will also be viewable on an website called Hachmat Rehov (Street Smarts) that is due to go live in the coming days.
“The encounter with the homeless man near my home opened my eyes,” Rozen said. “I always wanted to engage in street art, and I thought this could raise awareness of the issue, develop compassion and perhaps give people a different viewpoint about those who are on the street — to see them not just as homeless people, but as human beings.”
He drew his graffiti on walls that had already been drawn on in the past so as not to disturb the public. “The goal wasn’t to vandalize and destroy, but to immortalize and adorn,” he said.
Before he began his project, he did field research that included in-depth conversations with homeless people throughout the city, since he wanted to thoroughly study their daily routines. He also met with Yoav Ben Artzi, director of the municipal department that deals with homeless people, to obtain information about homelessness. Ben Artzi told Rozen that his budget isn’t large enough to deal with the homeless adequately, and that there is currently no solution for their problems.
Rozen began roaming the areas where the homeless hang out, equipped with sandwiches to distribute. “Near the Opera Tower, close to the beach, two groups of homeless people had gathered. At first I didn’t know how to approach them, so I watched from the sidelines,” he said.
“When one of the homeless men approached me, I thought this was a good opportunity to try to talk with him. That was Andrei, the first homeless person I met, who also agreed to participate in the project. I offered him a sandwich and he answered me in Russian.”
Andrei not only liked the idea of the project and agreed to participate, but even gave Rozen advice on how to approach other homeless people. “It was important to me to investigate the homeless from an objective perspective, not from a perspective enslaved by pity,” Rozen explained.
“He told me he immigrated from Moscow 20 years ago, that he had studied art there, and that art is an inseparable part of his life,” Rozen continued. “Even when he slept on the street, he drew people whom he saw on the beach. He showed me his sketches and told me this was his way of keeping the artistic part of himself alive and kicking.”
Andrei introduced Rozen to Nick, who has lived on the street for about seven months, starting shortly after he arrived from the United States with the intention of touring Israel. When his money ran out, he decided to live on the streets of Tel Aviv. He works as a maintenance man at a hotel, and at the end of his shift, he returns to the street.
“He finished college in the United States and said he also played football,” Rozen recalled. “He said he was sick of the Western lifestyle, the materialism, the endless pursuit of money. He said, ‘On the street, your property isn’t always yours alone, and it could happen that you obtained something with great effort and then you have to share it with someone who needs it more than you do.’”
Nick also told Rozen an allegory that made its way into his final project. “One of the things he learned is that life on the streets teaches you to share,” Rozen said. “He told me, ‘If you have $10 million and you give me half a million dollars, then you haven’t given me almost anything. In comparison, if I have only ten shekels and I give five shekels to my friend Andrei, I’ve given him half my property.’”
Rozen said that despite the way society stigmatizes homeless people as anti-social, he heard again and again about displays of solidarity among the homeless. “Andrei spoke a lot about their cooperation and described a life of full partnership. He said that homeless people often help each other even without knowing each other well.”
Other homeless people who appear in Rozen’s drawings are Mati, a 60-year-old man born in Israel who supports himself by woodcarving, and Mark, who moved to Israel from England about two decades ago.
“Mark was a musician and deejay,” Rozen said. “On one of his visits to Israel, he met a woman, and the encounter led to a great love and two children. Several years later, their relationship went on the rocks and they divorced. His condition deteriorated and he wound up on the streets. He says that once you’re on the streets, it’s very hard to get off them.”
Mark also stressed the brotherhood among the homeless and their willingness to assist one another, Rozen recalled. “’We accept everyone,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t matter what your past was.’”
Rozen said he learned many things he didn’t know. “I was surprised by the language of many of the homeless people, by their life stories, by their emotions, by their interior world and by their willingness to open up.”
“I’d like to change the way society looks at this population, and I’d like for them to become less invisible,” he concluded.
Rozen’s project will be on display from July 14 to 24 as part of an exhibition for Avni Institute graduates at 23 Eilat St. in Tel Aviv.