Homeless people wander around Tel Aviv in the brutal heat, trying to survive. Many are addicted to drugs and in poor health, with visible track marks and open sores. They rummage through trash cans, some push shopping carts to collect deposit bottles, scrap metal and anything they can sell, in a bid to avoid crime. Others sprawl on the sidewalks for all to see, clearly suffering from mental illness, physical neglect and social ostracism.
Since 2007, a small center at the Central Bus Station had offered a temporary refuge from the search for the next hit, and a bit of human kindness. In early July, it was forced to close its doors, due to infuriating decisions by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and his agency.
Six weeks ago, electricity to the center, home of the Yizhar and First Step programs, was cut off. Both projects were sponsored by the Health Ministry, the Israel Anti-Drug Authority and the Israel AIDS Task Force. In 2017, the Anti-Drug Authority was reconstituted under the Public Security Ministry, which paid the center’s rent and other expenses.
The center provided support to drug-addicted homeless people, including women involved in sex work, a marginal population without access to government services. First Step finds homeless drug addicts and refers them to free rehabilitation programs facilities for free, when they are trying to extract themselves from a life of hell and return to society. Yizhar focuses on harm reduction, operating a needle exchange program and providing contraception, all anonymously.
At the center, homeless people can shower, eat, get clothing and, if needed, basic medical care and legal advice. The heart of the program is the bond that is created with them, breaking their extreme loneliness. But because the Public Security Ministry did not pay rent for 18 months, the landlord cut off the electricity and is preventing the center’s workers from entering.
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The failure here is even worse: For a year now, the Public Security Ministry has not transferred the funds, as it is obligated to do, for referring addicts to rehab (a service they are entitled to receive for free from the government). Even the tiny budget for food and drink is not reaching its destination.
Last Sunday, there was a heartbreaking sight: Several homeless people who had come to the center were attended to by the dedicated volunteers – but out in the street, in the blazing sun. And thus the veil of anonymity was shredded and they were exposed to all during the needle exchange process and obtaining contraception. There was no food, and not even a cup of water, to give the homeless people because the volunteers had ceased paying for this out of their pockets. One homeless man, who had stolen a watermelon, cut it up and offered it to others, with a generosity and compassion not seen from the likes of Erdan.
There were no basic first aid supplies to tend to the homeless people’s wounds. The volunteers handed out needles. For a moment it almost looked like a dealers’ distribution spot, without any real treatment happening. Besides the risk of increased disease among drug-addicted homeless, some of whom work in prostitution, what this means is that the Public Security Ministry is not doing its job of reducing crime, since it is not reaching out to help those who wish to escape a life of crime and drugs, and is instead abandoning them.
Haaretz journalists, who report without discrimination based on race, religion and gender, are often scolded by those who invoke the saying, “Put the poor of your own city first.” I would like to address this saying to Erdan and ask him: What are you doing for the poor of your city? How do you sleep at night when, for a year, homeless people seeking a referral to rehab have been getting nothing but vague and evasive answers because your ministry is not transferring the funding for this? How can you enjoy a nice meal when you are blocking funding for homeless people to have a sandwich and a cup of water?