The homeless in Israel are invisible to the government. Politicians don’t view them as an electoral force worth bothering over or trying to help. According to a 2016 Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry report, some 1,800 people in Israel are categorized as homeless. The real figure is presumably much higher, — between 11,000 and 32,000, according to a 2018 study by Shmulik Szeintuch.
“The definitions used in Israel for homelessness are extremely narrow compared to the global standard,” says Szeintuch, a social worker who teaches in the Sapir Academic College School of Social Work. He adds that there is a political aspect to the official number of homeless people: The higher it is, the more resources must be allocated to the problem.
Society strips homeless people of their humanity and tends to view them through a prism of stigmas caused by prejudices, unfamiliarity and fear.
I recently interviewed drug-addicted homeless men and women in the area of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station about the upcoming election. Most said right away that they intended to vote, but they will not be able to do so easily because of several barriers that stand in their way. The IDs of most of them have been lost or stolen, and they lack the money, the know-how or the emotional wherewithal to replace it. They have no official address, cellphone or access to a calendar.
When asked what party they would vote for, not one mentioned a leftist party as a possibility. While the left is perceived as social-minded, seeking justice, fighting to right wrongs and leading the effort to improve the status of the homeless, on the street, a different truth was revealed: There, it is seen as elitist and out of touch.
It’s admirable that the left fights for groups that don’t identify with its values and goals, but its disconnectedness from these populations attests to the left’s tendency to talk over people’s heads and to a persistent pattern of failure when it comes to fieldwork.
Which parties did the homeless say they would vote for? Well, Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu were not very popular among this group. Some were debating between Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman. And the homeless women were generally more vocal about being fed up with Netanyahu and wanting to vote for Kahol Lavan.
The reasons they offered for preferring various candidates were no different from what one hears among the general population — seeing a certain leader as more relevant for these times, being unhappy with a candidate for not being concerned enough with helping the disadvantaged and voting along tribal, clannish lines, in keeping with their family’s voting habits.
All of the parties should come and listen to what these people are saying, not purely to drum up votes, but in order to truly understand what these people need, to think about how to reduce homelessness, perhaps by coming up with a range of solutions for housing, rehabilitation and employment that would fit their needs.
Another trend revealed by the interviews with the homeless is that despite the government’s persistent failure to tend to their needs (2016 Social Services Ministry figures say 26 percent of the homeless have been on the street for more than four years), and contrary to the social stigma that points them as antisocial and disinterested in what is happening around them, many expressed a caring stance toward society, love for the country and patriotism.
Asked what they would change in the country, all displayed knowledge about the government’s role and capabilities.
The time has come for the country to hear the voice of the homeless too. Just letting them know that they are not invisible is a good first step.
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