Opinion

As the Coronavirus Spreads in Tel Aviv, Homeless Women Are Treated Like Lepers

A sex worker in the old central bus station area of Tel Aviv
Nir Kafri

In February I met a homeless woman, addicted to drugs, who is a 42-year-old mother who had worked as a prostitute for years. Now she collects bottles and sleeps in the street with other homeless people in the old central bus station compound in Tel Aviv.

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The coronavirus looked very distant at the time. She was upset by the incitement of residents and activists in the Facebook group South Tel Aviv in Withdrawal, which had trickled down to the street and brought about a change in attitude and more difficulties for the homeless.

She told how a policeman had taken away her shopping cart, even though she had begged and explained that it contained a bag with her identity card and important papers, as well as clean needles she had gotten from the Yizhar Project – a Health Ministry program that provides addicts with sterilized needles to prevent illness and infection.

“It took me a lot of time and effort to renew my identity card. What will I do now?” she said. “They kick us out of everywhere. I’ve been living at the bus station for years, I have no right to sit and rest on a bench? They throw out all the homeless. I have no place to sleep. I would expect people who live in houses not to be cruel to those who are out on the street. I would expect the residents, the police and the city’s inspectors to remember that we’re human beings. True, we’re addicted to drugs and live in the street, but human beings.”

The incitement she was referring to has gotten more intense since the coronavirus outbreak. The marked lack of humanity these days toward the most vulnerable population in society is outrageous, especially since organizations are continuing to help these people in these times. The fine line between raising awareness of the difficult situation in south Tel Aviv and dealing with social problems is being crossed these days, and has become a shameful campaign of dehumanization.

“Now if an addict coughs or spits near you on the street, you can’t know if it’s from the drugs or from corona,” said a neighborhood resident, who would like to see south Tel Aviv “cleansed” of the homeless. “South Tel Aviv is a greenhouse for corona,” said another resident.

“Even the Shin Bet’s tactics won’t succeed in identifying who’s been where, who kicked who in the middle of the night, where he spat and urinated, who he slept with, which trash can he’s been through and who collected the needles,” said Sheffi Paz, who has been working for years to expel asylum seekers from the neighborhood, and is now posting videos attacking the homeless and prostitutes, while also taking potshots at asylum seekers, even though they live in apartments. The few residents trying to show a modicum of compassion toward the homeless are swallowed up in the flood of incitement.

What’s really happening out there? The consumption of prostitution at the bus station compound has dried up. Clients are also afraid of the coronavirus so only a handful dare to go there. The insensitive activists forced the closure of rooms and brothels that are empty in any case these days, and which were merely providing the sex workers with a place to sleep.

These are desperate women, most of whom can function but have no network of assistance and distrust the state authorities that have abandoned them. These are mothers and even grandmothers, some of whom live a double life: They sleep in these places and engage in prostitution for a few days, then go back to their families. The closures, although celebrated by the neighborhood activists, could lead these women to turn tricks on the street, that’s how desperate they are.

This will not eliminate prostitution – it only abuses the weakest and most exploited women in society. It would be better to look into what they need, why they are trapped in prostitution, and assist them. These are difficult times, full of fear and heartbreak for the entire society, but one mustn’t lose one’s humanity and persecute the weak. Instead, extend a hand and help them.