Police Close Drug Den, but the Addicts and Dealers Remain

Business pushed into the open on the streets after closure of infamous drug den near T.A. bus station.

On Tuesday night last week, the large "drug station" at 1 Finn St. in Tel Aviv looked closed. The doors were sealed, and only a weak light shone from the main entrance, where refugees from Eritrea live. The life outside was more hellish than ever, with female junkies, track marks visible on their bodies, wobbling with clouded eyes from one client's car to the next.

In daylight, the next day, everything was exposed. The drug house was indeed shut but the addicts remained nearby and behaved as though it were still active. The dealers who once rented apartments in the building gathered at the corner kiosk, while the women continued to surround the building and hunt for clients in order to get the money for another hit.

The addicts found temporary refuge in the fenced-in yard of 5 Finn. In the past few days the yard, filled with refuse, used needles, bottles and huge rats, became their bed. With no roof above their heads the women hide there, shooting up and attempting to fall asleep. The dealers, indefatigable, remain nearby.

"We don't have anyplace to go," Rama, 25, a narcotics addict who supports herself through prostitution, said. "The sudden closure sent us into shock. Drugs can be obtained anywhere - the entire Central Bus Station has become one big drug station. The shock is being thrown into the street. 1 Finn was our last stop."

Rama related that she has been in the Old Central Bus Station area for four years, two of them in the building, off and on. "When there was money, I rented an apartment. When there wasn't, I was thrown out and I slept on the ground."

Anat, 34, who is also addicted to drugs and working in prostitution, also seems upset. "I spent the past two days with an old man but this morning he kicked me out and now I don't have anywhere to go," Anat said. "At 1 Finn I paid NIS 150 a night for a dirty room. Now we're helpless."

The building on Finn Street began as an apartment house rented out to women working in prostitution but gradually became a drug trafficking center, where dealers, addicts, pimps and prostitutes lived together, under the nose of the police, the municipality and the Ministry of Social Affairs. The arrangement was convenient for everyone: the municipality, because the addicts and prostitutes did not leave the site, did not interfere with the urban routine, ostensibly did not disrupt the public order and simply rotted away together. For the police it meant a concentrated source of intelligence was all located in a single building, easy to locate when needed, creating a sense that crime did not extend beyond the premises.

The Israel Police changed their approach, however, and decided to seal the building instead of continuing to raid it weekly. "The closure of the building is a joint measure by the police and the Tel Aviv municipality," Commander Moshe Edry, chief of the Yiftah District, said last week. "The electricity was cut off a few weeks ago, we stopped the water supply and now we closed the building with court orders and destroyed the interior staircase. We employed our full capacity and joined together to fight this phenomenon. Our estimation is that the moment the building is closed the number of addicts will decrease because the building concentrated crime. We believe that when the addicts are scattered we can deal with them better. Any building that opens from now on will be dealt with immediately and sealed on the spot," Edry said.

Wandering around 1 Finn last Wednesday it appeared that the women were worried and frightened, but the drug trade continued. A few doors down an agile entrepreneur was already renting out rooms for NIS 50 an hour, and the word was out.

"New areas are popping up," said Rani Halabi, the field coordinator of the mobile clinic run by the Health Ministry's Levinsky Clinic. The mobile clinic operates at night to provide aid and treatment for narcotics addicts and women who work in prostitution.

"Women gather at the corner of Levanda and Levinsky streets, women sleep on cardboard in a burnt-out, sooty building, and some of the women find refuge and shelter under the Haganah [Street] Bridge," Halabi said.

1 Finn was notorious among the addicts as a violent place. Since January Magen David Adom Dan Region spokesman Sasi Mohadev has reported 18 stabbings in the building and 20 incidents of rape and other violence. Most incidents, however, go unreported.

In the past year five female drug addicts have died in and around 1 Finn. In September, 2007, Keren Margalit, 29, who immigrated from the United States when she was 18 and lived in the building, died of an overdose. About two months later a 17-year-old girl who come to the building to buy drugs for the first time died of an overdose. In late November A., 46, an addict who worked in prostitution, was found dead in her room. A. had worked the streets near the Ramat Gan diamond exchange before moving into 1 Finn two months earlier. In April B., who cleaned the building in exchange for small amounts of drugs, died in a room in the building. In May M. came straight from prison to 1 Finn, where she bought drugs and died the same day.

"It is clear to all of us that soon there will be a new address, if not 1 Finn then 3 or 17," said the director of Levinsky Clinic, Yael Gur. "Addicts will continue searching for the drugs and women and girls will continue to be exploited by the cruel industry that has developed in the neighborhood, as long as no real solutions are found for those trapped in this inferno," Gur said. Levinsky Clinic has treated 830 addicts, 40 percent of whom are female.

"Closing the building allows one to see in the streets all the horror that 1 Finn Street hid inside - women who sleep in yards, women who are badly addicted and in such poor health they can barely work in prostitution," Gur continued. "Inside the building they were vulnerable to extortion and exploitation and some lost their lives; now, in the street, they are abandoned to their fate."

In a response, the Social Affairs Ministry said, "The ministry has a plan to assist addicts [that includes] dormitories where the addicts can live."

The Tel Aviv municipality said in a response, "The building at 1 Finn Street is privately owned and the municipality cannot control who stays there, be they foreign workers, drug addicts or prostitutes. We will continue to do all we can to direct the addicts from 1 Finn to rehabilitation centers, but we cannot compel them since this is a voluntary and not a compulsory process."