For most, summer's end spells relief from months of stifling heat. But for a group of 19 families living for the past 10 weeks in some two dozen tents in downtown's Gan Menora, the advent of the rainy season could not come at a worse time. These 100 or so demonstrators, and the 53,000 other homeless people living in Israel, says encampment leader Ayala Sabag, do not have the luxury of retreating to insulated houses when conditions turn inclement - a cause that prompted the small group to set up camp in the first place. Drastic cuts in social spending, coupled with rising housing prices in the city, have turned many homeless, she says. The group's central grievance is that an NIS 1.6 billion public housing fund was redirected toward other uses, with about half going to the Jewish Agency. They refuse to leave until each and every one of them has been provided with housing by the authorities. Thus far, Sabag says, their protest has been met with stony silence on the part of the Construction and Housing Ministry, who "don't want to be seen to give in to this kind of demonstration, for fear of setting a precedent." In response, Sabag and her comrades have vowed to continue their struggle to the bitter end, but time is not on their side given the impending winter. "Look around you," says Sabag tearfully as she casts a despairing glance at the flimsy shelters. "There are holes in the roofs, there are mice running in and out of the tents, and once the rain comes things can only get worse." The families are crammed into structures little sturdier than beach shades, with up to four people and their meager possessions struggling to fit into two-man tents. Their troubles stem from the 2002 decision to cut rental assistance by almost 50 percent, according to Ran Melamed of Yedid, an association for community empowerment which provides legal assistance to low-income families across Israel. "The protesters' problem is very simple," says Melamed. "They have found themselves either not eligible for public housing, or - if they are - they are too far back in the queue to receive assistance at present. "It is the responsibility of the government to provide decent housing, in a decent environment, at an affordable price," he continues, adding that he anticipates that the protesters' situation will improve with the upcoming budget. "There appears to be a deal between the Housing Ministry and the Finance Ministry to increase the rental assistance over the coming two years to the point where it is almost back to the pre-cut levels," he adds. However, for the families caught in the quandary of the cutbacks, a two-year wait is an interminable amount of time to be left without a roof over their heads. CAMP RESIDENTS wander around their claustrophobic quarters with world-weary expressions, eyes glazed in resignation and shoulders slumped. Given that they've been left out in the cold, quite literally, for the past 10 weeks, it's no surprise that spirits are flagging. However, Sabag still musters a defiant attitude when describing the battle. "We might be tired, but we haven't lost our will to continue," she says. "They can beat us, starve us, ignore us for months, but the one thing they'll never steal is our ruah [spirit]." The protesters are in breach of the law by setting up camp in a public park, but the authorities appear content to leave them to their own devices for now. Originally there was confrontation between the police and the demonstrators - "they were worried about their precious lawn getting ruined," scoffs Sabag - but the authorities soon backed down in the face of public support for the protesters. Since then, however, the demonstrators' mood has turned far darker, due to the apparent apathy of the government to their plight. "If they tried to evict us now there'd be blood," warns Sabag. "Coming in here would be like walking into the lion's den." But even she knows that the group might find that their ultimate challenge will come from nature, rather than human intervention. "If the weather does get intolerable, we'll have to seek alternative shelter - if only for the sake of the children," says Sabag, looking over at the youngest members of the camp. The children have been able to keep up with their studies on a fairly regular basis, with assistance from volunteers who drive them to school or teach them on-site. Three students from the nearby Bezalel Academy of Art and Design have made it their summer project to assist the young protesters. On Sunday they unveiled a new play area. "We're not here to get involved in the politics of the protest," says Prof. Eldad Cidor. "We just wanted to make the kids' lives a bit easier while they're here, and that's what we appear to have done over the last two months." The Bezalel team was assisted with erecting the play area by volunteers from the Hashomer Hatza'ir Zionist youth movement, who worked alongside the students to erect huge cardboard houses at the edge of the camp. "It's great that they came along," says Cidor. "First, because we could do with the help, and second, because it's good to see that the idealism of helping others is still present in Israel's youth." "Kol hakavod to Bezalel," says Sabag. "It's important for us that they came, but also important for students such as these to learn lessons about the community that they can use later in life." The protesters are all of Sephardi origin, which Sabag believes is significant in terms of the way the government treats different sections of Israeli society. "There is serious racism at the core of this issue," she declares. "We're the blacks, the Mizrahim - and the government has no problem trampling all over us. They'd rather spend $5,000 on a new dress for their wives than help the poor citizens of the country." As tears well up in her eyes once more, she says that she was "begging for help from any quarter - whether within Israel or from foreign donors." SABAG is not homeless herself, but as a seasoned social activist, she has taken on the role of leader of the Gan Menora community. One of the women Sabag is here to support, Leah Madelsi, paints a bleak picture of how she ended up living in a Jerusalem park with her two daughters. "After my divorce, I found myself unable to pay the bills using the meager funds I received from the government," she explains. "We were given an Amidar apartment in Beit Shemesh at first," she says, "but after we encountered problems living there, I was forced to move us in with my sister in Jerusalem. Our stay was cut short by a fight between my sister and me, and we were thrown out into the street. "We ended up having to sleep out in the park or in bomb shelters, which took its toll on my health," she continues. "I had a heart attack, and now have to take eight pills a day just to keep my blood flowing properly." Of the NIS 3,000 a month she currently receives in benefits, "I need to spend NIS 800 just for my medicine - but how can I do that when it means taking food from my daughters' plates?" she asks. "I just don't have the strength anymore. I've got second-degree burns from sitting out in the sun [all summer in the encampment], and no one from the municipality is doing a thing to help us." Madelsi says her story is far from unique among her fellow protesters, "most of whom are single parents, who get refused housing by landlords because of the small government allowance they receive from the state." She speaks disparagingly of the municipality's response to their demonstration, accusing Mayor Uri Lupolianski of refusing to find even a temporary solution to their plight. "Instead we just get all the usual lies while they sit back and do nothing," she says. For their part, a municipal spokeswoman said in a statement: "We have offered assistance to the protesters, but they do not take up our offer, preferring to collect donations in the street [from the public]." The spokeswoman said that in addition to acting as a middleman between the demonstrators and the Housing and Construction Ministry, "who have the [ultimate] responsibility for the situation," the municipality has also tried to assist the encampment residents by offering employment and education consulting. The spokeswoman added that the protesters were putting themselves in danger by choosing to make their base in Menora Park, "in the middle of all of the traffic in the city center." A ministry spokesperson said that solutions had been offered to most of the families, but that they had been rejected. Another meeting between Sabag's ad-hoc committee and the ministry is scheduled to take place in October, after the last one failed to produce an agreed-upon solution to their predicament. AT THE heart of the standstill is a national debate over the most effective housing solution. Previously needy families had been provided with publicly owned apartments. But as reported recently in The Jerusalem Post, it has been 30 years since Amigur, the Jewish Agency's housing subsidiary, has built new public housing. Instead, the public housing cause has been abandoned for rent subsidies as a more economically viable solution. But with the 2002 budget cuts, such subsidies have become insufficient for many. This shift in policy coupled with the failed implementation of the 1998 Public Housing Law has fueled the Gan Menora demonstration. Instead of using the money from the sale of public apartments to build or purchase more public housing, as stipulated by the law, the government redirected the accrued NIS 1.6b. under an agreement with the Jewish Agency. In the meantime, the demonstrators confront the daily dangers that plague them in the park, from lack of sanitation and food to the "perverts who enter the camp at night," says Sabag. "We end up having to do constant guard duty to defend ourselves from them and the other uninvited guests who bother us after dark," she says. MANY OF the local residents have proved more than sympathetic to the demonstrators' plight. "Not only don't they mind us setting up camp in their midst, but they also bring us food and drink to show their support for our battle," says Sabag. The Gan Menora encampment, she insists, is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of her determination to force the government to address the burgeoning homeless issue. If this protest succeeds, Sabag says, she has several other groups of homeless Israelis whom she will bring to demonstrate in the park. "There are a group of Arab women in east Jerusalem who are suffering in just the same way," she says. "Just as the Mizrahi group members were living in bomb shelters and in public parks, so too are these women similarly destitute - and I will do it [the protest] all over again with them." She accused the government of ignoring the Arab women for the same "racist" reasons that they have not dealt swiftly with the Mizrahi protesters. Although she is aware that the authorities might be far more heavy-handed in dealing with a group of Arab protesters camping out in the heart of the capital's tourist hub, she is not intimidated by the prospect of confrontation. Walking around the camp with Sabag as night falls over the park, it is clear that the protesters might be weary, but that they're completely behind their leader in her quest to secure justice for them. People smile at her and offer encouragement from the doors of their tiny tents, and she responds gently to their queries and offers words of sympathy in return. The appalling living conditions at the camp would likely horrify most, but they haven't put off the protesters themselves, who have now braved nearly three months in this state of penury. Sabag's declaration that their spirits will never be stolen from them, even if all else is, appears to be a sound assessment of the demonstrators' resolve. But how long they can hold out in their downtown stronghold is anyone's guess, for it would seem that their days exposed to the elements are numbered, and no amount of fiery rhetoric from Sabag will be enough to keep the storms at bay.

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