Opinion |

Israel Needs a National Program to Care for Homeless People

Ron Huldai
Ron Huldai
A homeless man in Tel Aviv last year.
A homeless man in Tel Aviv last year.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ron Huldai
Ron Huldai

It was with great pain and frustration that I read recent essays in Haaretz claiming that the city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa installs public benches that are divided down the middle by a small table “for the purpose of excluding and harassing homeless people.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Contrary to such claims, not only has there been no increase in the number of these benches, they make up less than 7 percent of the city’s public benches: 1,000 out of 15,000. These benches were designed to allow people with disabilities to sit down comfortably, holding on to the table in addition to, or instead of, the armrest. The little tables are also convenient for holding food or drinks; most of these benches have been placed in areas with cafés and street food, in order to meet the growing need for outdoor dining spaces as a result of the pandemic.

Beyond the matter of the benches, the essays raise a more fundamental question about the city’s policy toward homeless people. As a metropolitan city, Tel Aviv-Jaffa attracts homeless people from throughout the country, and their number in the city is steadily increasing. This year, there were about 1,300 homeless people in Tel Aviv – about 40 percent of the total number of homeless people in Israel.

Most countries have similar problems. Homeless people do not only lack permanent shelter. Many suffer from drug or alcohol addiction and from physical or mental illness. Most lack a family or social support system and cannot easily find the wherewithal to improve their situation. Many homeless people are reluctant, or outright refuse, to accept aid from the establishment, including aid with housing, in obtaining the welfare assistance for which they are eligible, in obtaining medical care or aid for buying food and clothing. Most do not work and struggle to maintain a regular domicile even when given support for this purpose. All of which means that the care they require is intensive, complex and ongoing, and encompasses a wide range of needs besides housing, such as treatment for addiction, assistance in job placement, perseverance with the treatment process and more.

Contrary to what was said in these opinion pieces, despite the difficulties and the immense challenges involved in caring for homeless people, and even though many of them come from other cities, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality spends more than 11 million shekels ($3.53 million) a year in aiding homeless people. It was also the first local authority in Israel to establish a special unit that is dedicated to dealing with the needs of homeless people. At the time, this move prompted strong opposition from activists and city residents who feared the mere existence of the unit would attract more homeless people to the city.

The unit, which serves 1,300 homeless people, conducts daily patrols to locate them (with even more urgency during the winter), to supply food and clothing, and to refer them to one of three overnight shelters in the city. A new shelter, scheduled to open in February, is being built in Jaffa, in accordance with international standards, at the initiative of the city and with 35 million shekels in municipal funding. A month later, we will begin renovating a shelter that is specifically designated for homeless people who are struggling with addiction.

The city is doing all it can to see that homeless people can exercise their rights and receive supportive psychological therapy from municipal social workers who aid them in coping with addiction and mental illness. This is hard, extremely demanding work, and it is not uncommon to later discover that aid given for rehabilitation needs was instead used to buy drugs. But we will not give up. We will continue to do all we can and to get to every person, to fight to give them a chance to return to normal life in the community.

Unfortunately, these solutions are not sufficient, and there is tremendous frustration at the disparity between the efforts and the results. The Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality will continue to make every effort, but in order for us to succeed, massive government commitment and involvement is also needed.

In some Western countries, a “Housing First” program has been successfully implemented, whose premise is that the condition for returning homeless people to normative life is providing permanent government housing, as a first stage. In permanent housing, formerly homeless people receive auxiliary support services provided by professionals, including psychiatrists and social workers. Together with the Housing Ministry, we are looking into introducing a “Housing First” pilot program in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. In addition, there is an immediate need to add hospital beds for drug rehabilitation and to allocate resources for medical care and mental health care on the street.

Homelessness, which intensifies during times of economic crisis, such as the coronavirus pandemic, is not something that can be ignored. Despite the complexities and challenges involved in caring for homeless people, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality is determined to do its utmost to provide them with shelter and a safety net, and to enable homeless people to return to life as part of the community.

Ron Huldai is the mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

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