'I Have Nowhere to Go': Tel Aviv Health Program for Homeless, Women in Prostitution and Drug Addicts Closes

The lights went out on Tel Aviv Central Bus Station project – and some of the city's most vulnerable populations have been left even more alone

A sign on the Yizhar center in south Tel Aviv reads "Closed because there's no electricity," July 20, 2019.
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Amir (a pseudonym), 54, lives on the street near the Central Bus Station in south Tel Aviv – and he looks in desperation at the door of the Yizhar needle exchange program on Golomb Street, which was closed to the public at the beginning of July.

“I’ve been coming here for three years, twice a week,” he says. “I shower here, get clean clothes. I’m don’t have anything to do, I have nowhere to go. For me it’s a home in every way. You closed the place – you took the life from the weakest people. ... What will I do now? Use used needles on the street?”

At the beginning of the month, the electricity was cut off to the center, which housed two projects that helped the homeless who are addicted to drugs: Yizhar and the First Step project, and now there is nothing for them at all. The owner of the building was forced to prevent the project’s employees from using the building after the Public Security Ministry did not pay the rent and electricity bills for 17 months.

The projects were established under the same roof in the bus station complex in 2007 by the Health Ministry, the Israel Anti-Drug Authority and the Israel AIDS Task Force. The Anti-Drug Authority was dissolved in 2017 and in its stead the Israel Authority for Prevention of Violence, Alcohol and Drug Abuse was established in the Public Security Ministry, which was responsible for the budget for the center.

The Yizhar project provides help to homeless addicts and women in prostitution who are addicted – most of whom are completely cut off from any government welfare or health services. The project operates in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, Ashdod and Be’er Sheva – but in Tel Aviv, the homeless capital, it is especially critical for minimizing the harm to addicts. The project’s employees provide initial medical treatment, legal advice and referrals for treatment. The center has a shower for the homeless and provides clean clothes, undergarments, basic food and drink. First Step also locates and refers addicted homeless people to withdrawal programs for free.

Boris (a pseudonym), 32, is homeless and an addict. He has lived on the street in the area of the bus station for 10 years. He takes a bag with used syringes out of his cart. “What will I do now?” he mutters. “I’ll wash the needles and use them. I’ll pick up needles from the floor and shoot up. ... Because the place is closed, we won’t get needles and get infected?

“There is nowhere else here that gives what they give – food, needles, a shower, clothes and most of all good treatment,” he says.

When it was operating, the center was open twice a week in the afternoon, and most of those who came were homeless men – who have no other place to go in the area – as well as women who are working in prostitution. Once a week, the center had a “women’s day,” only for homeless and addicted women.

“For many homeless addicted to drugs, who spend entire days wandering around in harsh living conditions and in social exclusion, the project staff are the only people who know them by their names and provide them with a respite from the harsh isolation and a personal contact,” says Zion, 31, who volunteers with the project.

“The goal of the project is to help prevent the spread of diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis that are caused by infected syringes,” says Zion. “We fought to get them used to coming and taking new syringes and now they are exposed to infection. It’s frustrating. It destroys the continuity of treatment and causes the people we treated and formed a bond with to disperse, because the place is closed.”

Nikita (a pseudonym), 30, has been addicted to drugs since she was 18 and has been working as a prostitute for six years. She is homeless and moves between apartments for clients around Tel Aviv. “This place must remain open. I get pads, condoms, new syringes. I won’t buy packages of syringes and condoms in the pharmacy. I will simply destroy my body, which is already ruined.”

Since the electricity was cut off, the center is completely dark. But when Alex (a pseudonym), a 46-year-old homeless man, asks the staff if he can come in and shower – they let him in. He showers in freezing water and comes out in clean clothes.

“It is heartbreaking not to let them shower and not to give them the most basic resources,” says Zion. “Here and there we let a person or two in, but starting this week the place will be closed completely and we won’t be able to allow even that gesture.”

Alex hears and takes a deep breath. “I don’t know what I’ll do without this place. I’ll use the same needle five times. I get bandages for the sores in my legs from shooting up. There is nowhere like this in the central bus station.”

The Public Security Ministry said, “The Authority for Prevention of Violence, Alcohol and Drug Abuse sees great importance in the activities of the center in which the Yizhar program is a part of, so it is funding the rent of the building.” The ministry said it regrets that in order to transfer the rent money, the owner must sign a rental agreement with the government, but the owner has not yet provided the necessary documents, and the delay does not depend on the ministry. “This process is expected to be completed in the next few days” and meanwhile izhar’s services, including distributing syringes and birth control are continuing outside of the building.

The Israel AIDS Task Force called Yizhar’s activities crucial to prevent new HIV infections and other diseases such as Hepatitis C among addicts who inject drugs, as well as for early detection and access to treatment for drug users who live with HIV. The branch’s closure would mean increased infection and the Task Force said it hopes the ministry will solve the problem as soon as possible.

The Health Ministry said the project is very important and the Public Security Ministry is trying to find a solution.