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Three People Living on Tel Aviv's Streets Died in the Storm. Does Israel Care?

Vered Lee
Vered Lee
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A homeless man in southern Tel Aviv.
A homeless man in southern Tel Aviv. Credit: Tomer Applebaum
Vered Lee
Vered Lee

A 57-year-old homeless man from the former Soviet Union was found on a bench in south Tel Aviv December 18, in critical condition. A divorced father of three, he hadn’t been in contact with his family for about 20 years.

A statement issued by the Magen David Adom emergency service quoted paramedics Noam Weisbuch and Yamit Aharon-Fink, who had tried to resuscitate him. “The man lay unconscious on a street bench, he was very cold to the touch and his clothes were soaked with water from the heavy rains of the past 24 hours.” He was taken to Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, where he was pronounced dead from hypothermia.

It was only after his death, which received insufficient media coverage, did the city of Tel Aviv Municipality take the trouble to set up a shabby emergency shelter for homeless residents, thanks to the worsening storm and at the instruction of the Social Services Ministry. In the shelter, which looks like a ruin, mattresses were strewn on the floor without separate areas for men and women.

By Wednesday the death toll rose to three after the bodies of two homeless men were found in Bat Yam, where the city does not provide shelter to those without homes. At noon, paramedics found the body of a man of about 60, with no ID, in a shopping center parking garage, where he and several other homeless people were sheltering from the storm. His body was found inside a fire hose reel box, where he probably thought he could get warm. In the evening, the body of a second man – around 50, known to the paramedics as a longtime street dweller, and wearing only a flimsy hospital gown – was found in the bomb shelter of an apartment building, where he had tried to find shelter.

Homeless people are subjected to brutal dehumanization. Society recoils from them and excludes them from the public sphere, seeing them as disruptors of social order. Homeless people are the refugees of human society, exiles living among us as total strangers. The media doesn’t do enough to make their voices heard independently, without the mediation of the authorities, which act to whitewash their neglect. There is no public discussion about their condition, about the authorities’ responsibility to take care of them, about the cruelty in hostile architecture that the Tel Aviv municipality is pushing undisturbed, and about solutions to help them.

A homeless woman in southern Tel Aviv, in September.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The tragic deaths of three people this week is part of a bitter statistic that is invisible to the public eye. In January, the body of a 69-year-old homeless man who died of hypothermia during a cold snap was found in Petah Tikva. On a cold January night in 2019, a 50-year-old homeless man was found dead of hypothermia in a stairwell of a residential building in Netanya. In January 2016, the body of a man of around 40, also a victim of hypothermia, was found in Bat Yam. In February 2008, the body of a homeless woman who had died of cold was found before dawn on Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Boulevard.

The cold wave in the winter of 2008 killed seven homeless people. On January 31 of that year, a homeless man was found dead in Tel Aviv, lightly dressed and surrounded by alcohol bottles. A day earlier, the body of a 50-year-old homeless man was found grasping a frozen slice of bread in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood. Three days earlier, a 35-year-old homeless man was found lifeless from the cold in a garbage room in a Bat Yam building. Two days earlier, two homeless people perished in a fire in an abandoned building in Rishon Letzion, presumably after lighting it to get warm. On January 14, a 36-year-old homeless man froze to death at the entrance to a locked bomb shelter in a Holon building, and on January 15, a 50-year-old homeless woman was found dead on a bench in Bat Yam.

The authorities will sweep the homeless people’s deaths under the rug this time, too, and will blame them as always, claiming they reject the solutions that had been offered.

The media coverage of those without a roof over their heads should fundamentally change, and we must not allow the authorities and the government to shirk responsibility for abandoning them to their deaths, and we must implement respectful, long-term solutions for them. No one chooses to freeze to death on a bench, to try and warm up in a fire hose closet in a parking garage or search for shelter during a rainstorm. No one deserves such a death.

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