Many stigmas have been attached to Israel’s homeless population, but the worst and most erroneous of them is the accusation that they voluntarily choose to live in the street and that they refuse the lodgings they are offered. The homeless population is mute, lacking any voice. So when it’s exploited in this fashion in order to paper over the failure of many years’ standing to provide them with suitable housing, there’s nobody to raise an outcry against it.
A study by the Knesset Research and Information center back in 2010 found that local governments provided a total of just 227 beds for homeless people nationwide, with only nine communities providing any kind of housing for them. Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry regulations require every city with more than 15 homeless people to open overnight shelters, but these regulations were not being enforced.
A Haaretz investigation found that today, 12 years later, the number of beds available in overnight shelters has increased by just 24, to 251. These beds are scattered among seven cities – Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Petah Tikva, Rishon Letzion, Hadera and Ashdod. There are also 367 beds available through therapeutic programs. But this is at a time when the number of homeless people has grown significantly. Today, using the Social Services Ministry’s narrowest definition, there are 3,471 homeless people. With a shortfall of 2,853 beds, is it really possible to continue blaming the homeless people, who have been cast into the streets and are hungry for suitable solutions?
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A 54-year-old homeless man recently paid a heavy price for this ongoing failure. He lived in Ramat Gan for 15 years as a working man with two daughters. But following a divorce and the onset of medical problems, he became addicted to alcohol, and in May of last year, when he was unable to pay his rent he found himself out on the street. Eight months later, he died in an abandoned bomb shelter. Ramat Gan does not operate shelters for homeless people, and the city has adopted a policy of referring people without housing to shelters in Tel Aviv. Many other Israeli cities also refuse to open dedicated shelters for people without homes. That is how two homeless people died in Bat Yam during winter storm Carmel in December.
Given this situation – in which cities shirk their responsibilities, the Social Services Ministry neither supervises nor enforces and the shortage of beds only keeps growing – the national government must enshrine the rights of homeless people in legislation that will prevent them from being abandoned.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.