When a Woman's Place Is in the Drug Den

A Magen David Adom ambulance crew found Iris (full name withheld), 46, on a street near Tel Aviv's old central bus station at 9 P.M. Thursday night, unconscious after overdosing on drugs. Less than an hour later, she was pronounced dead at Ichilov Hospital. Iris, from Ramat Hasharon, was a prostitute and a drug addict. Two months ago, other area sex workers say, she came to the building on 1 Finn Street, next to the bus station.

Iris is the third victim of 1 Finn Street in the past two months. The building has become Israel's largest round-the-clock drug den.

The police knew Iris. She had worked the streets near the Ramat Gan diamond exchange before arriving at Finn Street. The building, with its central location, attracts users and dealers from across the city, who live there with pimps and prostitutes. There are 70 small apartments, rented to sex workers for NIS 150 to NIS 200 a day.

Violence is rampant in and around the building. "Every month we get about 20 calls about rape, overdoses and violence at 1 Finn," says Sasi Mohadev, Dan Region MDA's spokesman.

"Women addicts at the old central bus station are condemned to a miserable life of exploitation, sickness and death," says Yifat Ben-David, director of a Health Ministry clinic in the area. "They are homeless, lonely, shunned, sick and malnourished." Ben-David says there are centers for homeless men, but no centers for women.

Efrat Shaprut, of Elem, an organization for at-risk youth, says a center that meets basic human needs is needed urgently for women, "to stabilize them so the rehab process can begin."

This month, a women's shelter opened in South Tel Aviv, and it may provide a partial solution. It is run by a nonprofit organization, in cooperation with the municipality and the Social Affairs Ministry. It currently does not accept drug users, but starting in mid-December it will be open to all women, and will have 18 beds for addicts, the Social Affairs Ministry said.

Iris, as noted, was the third victim at 1 Finn over the past two months. The previous victims were Keren Margalit, 29, whose body was found in late September, and a 17-year-old who died in a one-room apartment early this month; she had come to buy drugs and died of an overdose.

Margalit's body was found in a parking lot on September 25. Because she had no criminal record, the police could not identify her. This week, the court released her body for burial as a Jane Doe in the non-Orthodox cemetery at Kibbutz Revadim. She was identified only afterward.

Margalit came to Israel from the U.S. at age 18. Margalit had studied to be a pharmacology technician and had used soft drugs before coming to Israel. After arriving here, she suffered a slipped disk and began to use painkillers and tranquilizers, and gradually transitioned to heavy drugs. Over the past five years, Elem had attempted to help her.

Six months ago, while preparing an article for Haaretz, I saw her at a drug ATM at 1 Finn. She was a pretty blonde, walking barefoot in the building's filth, and looked like a lost flower-child. She was trying to get high from NIS 20 worth of heroin. She was crying and trembling because it was not enough.

A half hour later she left the building, calm, and started to tell about her day. "I woke up in the morning at this guy's house who took me there the night before," she said in American-accented Hebrew. "He woke me up in the morning rudely and wanted sex." Margalit said she refused, losing her shoes as she fled. She spent half a day asleep at a fast-food restaurant at the new Central Bus Station, until they kicked her out. She went into a shoe store, but because she had no money, the salesman demanded sex in exchange for shoes worth NIS 20. "I did it, and he wanted more but I said no. How do you like that. I should have gotten NIS 50 for what I did." Feeling humiliated, she took the money, left the shoes, and headed "home," barefoot, to 1 Finn to buy drugs.

Margalit was in and out of rehab for years and was hospitalized a few times at a psychiatric hospital. "I tried to convince her to get into rehab but she didn't want to," says Avner Cabel, who works for the Authority for the War on Drugs and Alcohol, and knew her. "She had trouble getting clean and the addiction did her in. A lot of addicts today suffer both from their substance abuse and mental illness, and since there is no proper system of response to their needs, this makes rehab difficult," Cabel says.

Hillel Fertok, spokesman for the Tel Aviv municipality, said: "The building on 1 Finn Street is privately owned and the landlord rents mainly to drug users. The city authority for substance abuse goes there from time to time to try to persuade the residents to enter rehab. Unfortunately, most of the addicts refuse to cooperate." Fertok added that only the police could maintain order there.

The police responded: "There is no connection between these deaths near [1 Finn]. The police are working openly and undercover against drug infractions at the site in cooperation with the relevant bodies."