Don't Call It Home

"Today mom came to visit me for the first time," says the 14-year-old girl, who we'll call Anna. "She's already been clean for three weeks." A slender constrictor snake from Makom Aher's animal corner winds itself around her forearm like a bangle, twisting over the signs of self-mutilation on her skin.

Anna's been at Makom Aher, Hebrew for "Someplace Else", an emergency center for homeless kids, for a month and half. "I knew I needed a framework; I wanted to change," she says as she delicately places the snake back into its transparent cage. Her parents were separated and she was living with her mother, who's an alcoholic. She'd tried moving in with her father and his new family, but that didn't work. Her mother tried to cure her addiction a few times, and each time rented an apartment and found a job, says Anna, "but she always goes back to drinking and then she loses the apartment. Some nights she sleeps in abandoned buildings or in the street."

Anna also slept in the street sometimes with her mother, but, she says, "I wasn't afraid because I was with my mom. In the mornings I went to dad's house to take a shower, and then I went to school and nobody knew."

She began to drink herself when she was nine, and at 14 was consuming serious amounts of vodka. "I used to take a hagigat every day," she says referring to the amphetamine-like drug derived from the leaves of the narcotic khat plant that is sold over the counter at many convenience stores, "and I'd promise myself that was the last time. By nighttime, I was hazy. I stopped going to school."

A haven from the chaos

Last summer, after her mother went back to drinking and was about to be tossed onto the street again, Anna decided to take up an offer from a social worker and enter Makom Aher. Located in a large house on an upscale street in north Tel Aviv, it is a temporary home for teenagers of both sexes who for various reasons need somewhere to sleep and shower, as well as food and clothing, and mainly a haven from the personal chaos they have become enmeshed in. Run by the Shahal NGO and the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality, it operates under the aegis of the Social Affairs Ministry's Youth Protection Authority.

Makom Aher was opened 16 years ago by Shahal, in cooperation with another NGO, Elem. Boys and girls wishing to enter have to undertake to give up alcohol and drugs; sexual relations and violence are forbidden on the premises. Cell phones are deposited with the management and the residents can use them only when they go out, for which they need permission.

Makom Aher also serves as an emergency center for adolescents who are removed from their homes, sometimes in the middle of the night, because of domestic violence. Others turn up on their own and ask to be admitted, or are sent by social workers or emergency services.

There are 24 beds, and in 2008 over 300 kids used them, says the manager, Yitzhak Medallion, 29. The Tel Aviv center is one of four in the country, the others being in Jerusalem, Be'er Sheva and Haifa. The Youth Protection Authority's national inspector, Muriel Nachman says that in 2008 they served some 700 teenagers. The numbers have been on the increase in the last two years, says Nachman. Most of the inmates are girls.

Medallion says that "Some of the kids refuse to get undressed when they go to bed and sleep in their clothes, because they are used to having to move from place to place and to be on the alert all night."

The duration of their stay at Makom Aher is limited to three months. "We make it clear that this is a temporary stop, and from here they will be transferred to a framework where the really serious treatment will begin," says Medallion. "We try to make their stay pleasant, with a family atmosphere, but we are careful not to call it 'home.' It's especially hard for younger children or those whose parents ignore their existence, so we soften it by calling it 'Makom Aher,' or 'the hostel,' and we give them unconditional love, but the separations are really tough, for the staff as well."

The taste of ice coffee

Next to the entrance door to Makom Aher, one girl has left behind a kind of institutional map, depicting a familiar routine: home, hostel, boarding school, halfway house, returning home. But not everyone goes back home after the process, and some drop out before the end and go back to the street.

Agam, another 14-year-old, has to leave Makom Aher in a few days time. "Parting is difficult," she says. "As much as I understand that I was here temporarily, I still feel that it's a home."

She comes from a family of immigrants from Ethiopia, and from an early age she did housework and cooked and cared for her younger siblings. "I came to Makom Aher because I wanted a normal life for a girl of my age. I didn't have the strength any more to take care of the others. I used to come home from school and couldn't do anything for myself, I just had to serve the others. To get away from it, I dragged myself down into behaving badly until I couldn't stand it anymore, and I called a social worker, crying, and asked for help."

She grew up in the shadow of serious violence. "From a young age I remember the cops at home, after dad came home drunk and started hitting mom, with me between them trying to keep them apart and both of them asking me to mediate."

But it was only after the violent father was jailed, about half a year ago, that Agam's slide into trouble really began. "When he went to prison, I felt that I wanted to breathe. I stopped going to school. I used to go out with guys until four or five in the morning, drink vodka and just hang out. I felt as if I had already given up on my life, that there was no more point in living."

At Makom Aher, she learned about a different life. "You can't understand what a change it was. From sitting around on a park bench at night with some guys, drinking vodka and moaning about life, all of a sudden I'm going to restaurants, having iced coffee in cafes in Tel Aviv," she laughs. "It's new to me to be cared for, and not to have to care for others." Her next stop will be a small hostel for girls, where she will live and study under boarding school conditions until she graduates high school. "I have found a framework that suits me. It's like this place - small and intimate."

The day at Makom Aher begins at 7:15 A.M. After breakfast, one girl goes to work, others go to school, and those who have dropped out of the system study in Makom Aher's own learning center. At 1:30 P.M. there's lunch and after that enrichment classes, clubroom time and lectures. Lights out is at 11 P.M. Sometimes the kids sit in the yard with instructors or volunteers, smoking, chatting, laughing, listening to music and chilling out.

They need to do some serious chilling out. One 12-year-old girl was found wandering around at night after being involved in a street fight; a girl from an Ethiopian family whose mother assaulted her escaped to a battered girls' home; an orphan refugee from Darfur is recovering from tuberculosis and waiting to start school; a 14-year-old boy whose divorced parents couldn't handle his violent behavior and drinking, and refused to take him into their homes. He came to Makom Aher after approaching a police patrol car and demanding help.

"These kids arrive here battered and exhausted after really bad experiences," says Medallion, "but there are still parts of them that can be cured, that can be worked with. After a few days at a safe place, in many cases a different child emerges."

Medallion says that "Often you get a sense that there are great welfare bureaus, devoted welfare officials, but they have 400 files on their desks. And there are amazing teachers, but they have 42 kids in their classrooms. But there are also cases of negligence - and I'm not speaking about parents, but about people who are supposed to call in professionals, and that is really annoying. You ask, 'Where were you when the kid was 10 and he began to be a vagrant, or came to school without a sandwich, or stopped going to school altogether?' And then there's the knowledge that with all the workload and the emotional attrition, there are a lot of kids who nobody even sees."

At 6 P.M. a 23-year-old volunteer comes to Makom Aher, to stay with the youngsters until bedtime. It is his own first day at law school, and he is visibly excited, but that didn't make him want to miss his shift. Today, it is impossible to see in him anything of the 15-year-old who was thrown out of his home and arrived at Makom Aher late one night. "I grew up in a middle-class home, parents happily married, ostensibly, but from the age of five I was beaten," he says.

When he was 15 and he began to resist the beatings, his parents wouldn't let him into the house. "I wandered around from one friend's house to another's for a couple of weeks. I slept in a storeroom where I worked. When everything else ran out, I slept on a bench. I became desperate in the middle of the winter, and contacted a social worker and told her I had nowhere to live."

He says he doesn't remember much about his childhood, "but I do remember the four months I spent here at Makom Aher, and what the staff and volunteers did for me. That's what brings me back today. It's important for me to give back to others, and show these youngsters that they can get ahead and reach someplace else."