Opinion

Invisible in Israel on a Bed of Cardboard

Homeless man near Tel Aviv central bus station: 'Anyone who thinks that homeless people are on the streets by choice and out of an urge for adventure is a romantic who is cut off from reality.'

Homeless on a Tel Aviv street, November 2015.
Tomer Appelbaum

They collapse on the street on a bed of thin cardboard, passing the night in abandoned buildings, in parks, on benches, on the street or in homeless shelters. They move slowly, pushing carts full of scrap metal, scrounging, eating and supporting themselves from the contents of trash cans. They drag along, begging from passersby. They have abscesses and sometime even obvious needle marks from drug abuse. Their hair is oily and their skin is covered with dust.

The winter rainy season is the most difficult time of the year for Israel’s homeless population. On stormy and rainy days, reporters from all of the media outlets are approached to do stories in which they accompany municipal social workers trying to convince the homeless to find shelter from the elements, and distributing blankets to those who refuse to leave the streets.

These stories, which resurface every year with seasonal regularity, naturally prompt compassion for the homeless and appreciation for the rescue operations carried out by municipal employees. But they also reflect misguided coverage by a lazy press that is joining forces with the establishment and perpetuating stigmas attached to the homeless population. And that’s how the mistaken impression takes hold that the homeless are living on the streets as a matter of choice, that they prefer sleeping on a cardboard bed outdoors and that the government is working valiantly for their well-being.

Just as the myth that prostitutes choose to earn a living as they do needs to be dispelled, so does the attitude toward the vast majority of homeless people as individuals who choose to live on the streets of their own free will. Natanel, an Israeli of Ethiopian background who has been living on the streets near the Tel Aviv central bus station for about the past four years, put it well: “Anyone who thinks that homeless people are on the streets by choice and out of an urge for adventure is a romantic who is cut off from reality. There is no one who doesn’t want to be protected and live in a home.”

Every time that I have covered the situation of homeless people who have taken refuge in abandoned buildings, I have come away convinced of their yearning for a home. One is overwhelmed at the sight of the little bits of decoration that they have retrieved from the garbage in an attempt to imbue their wretched refuge with a sense of home.

In the absence of reliable data on the extent of the problem, Israel’s homeless population remains invisible to the authorities, and the issue is only being partially addressed. It’s been many years that the Social Affairs Ministry and the Construction and Housing Ministry have been trying to shift responsibility to one another over which is to deal with the problem. The two ministries are simply not proposing housing solutions capable of creating real change. The amount of assistance that the Housing Ministry offers homeless people, which is conditioned on the approval of a social worker and a rehabilitation plan, comes to 1,170 shekels ($305) a month, which is very far from being enough to put a roof over one’s head.

There are other countries that have developed successful programs that enable long-term homeless people to obtain housing, along with social support and rehabilitation. In Israel, even the network of homeless shelters is inadequate. In 2010, a report from the Knesset Center for Research and Information revealed that the total number of beds for the homeless around the country was sufficient to accommodate only 11 percent of the homeless people recognized by the authorities. And the overcrowding in emergency shelters, coupled with their being closed during the day, leads many homeless people to prefer the streets.

The time has come for the homeless to be moved into Israeli society’s field of vision through the development of a policy of prevention, as there is in many other countries. Improvements also must be made to Israel’s emergency shelters. There should be a holistic approach to addressing the issue and legislation must adopted in line with proposals that the Association for Civil Rights in Israel has been promoting for several years, seeking to protect the rights of this most invisible of Israel’s populations.