‘Victoria? How are you?” Asnat Cohen- Touboul yells from the open car
A man and a woman look up from a bench. Both are dressed in warm
sweaters, open jackets on top.
Stragglers from the morning work crowd
make their way down the sidewalk to bus stops, offices and buildings where they
will spend their next few hours. But for Victoria and David, the man at her
side, there is no clear answer as to where they will spend
Probably on the same bench they have been sitting on for the past
few hours, in front of the same bank they like to sit in front of every few
“Come here, Victoria, come closer, I know you don’t see well,”
Cohen- Touboul says.
Victoria walks unsteadily toward the curb, a woman
supports her arm. Years of alcohol abuse have taken their toll.
makes it to the car window first.
Victoria hits him half-jokingly,
“Victoria, don’t fight,” Cohen- Touboul says. Victoria
laughs and David interjects, “She tries to hit me, I just move back.” Now
“Listen, we want to rent an apartment together,” David
announces as he leans in the car window.
“We want one room for him and
one room for me,” Victoria says matter-of-factly.
“Come with us to the
office now,” Cohen-Touboul replies. David promises they will make it in later in
“You always say you’ll come to us, David, and you never
Victoria and David are two of nearly 550 people living on the
streets of Tel Aviv who have case files with the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality’s
Unit for the Treatment of the Homeless. This is in addition to 80 or 90 known
people on the streets who have refused treatment but are being monitored by the
unit’s social workers.
Cohen-Touboul is a social worker and clinical
criminologist, and the manager of the small team of outreach workers made up of
four additional social workers and several support workers. She and her team go
on daily street patrols based on complaints of panhandling and loitering that
members of the public call in to the municipal operator.
“Can you reach
Naty and ask her if she’s in the unit?” Cohen-Touboul asks Ze’ev Shveidel, her
patrol partner, himself a social worker and an applied criminologist. “I want
her to go through the operator calls.”
They have been cruising around a
particular address on Hayarkon Street, after someone called in and complained
about a person with cardboard boxes sleeping in front of their
But no one is there.
“They are going now to look for
their fix,” Cohen-Touboul explains. “These people are so heavily addicted that
it takes time for them to realize the danger they are in. There are situations
where they don’t want to talk at all.”
Outreach is key in implementing
treatment, according to Yoav Ben-Artzi.
He is the municipality’s manager
of treatment for drug addicts, alcoholics and the homeless and rehabilitation of
released convicts, which falls under the broader umbrella of the city’s Social
Services Authority. The Unit for the Treatment of the Homeless is part of his
“Outreach is our main tool,” Ben- Artzi says. “Part of
our daily patrol goal is to follow up with subjects who are in bad shape
physically but who do not want to go into treatment, to see if maybe this time
they will agree.”
But outreach is not all treatment- or
survival-oriented, Cohen-Touboul says.
An important aspect is letting
people know someone cares about them.
“Part of our work is to see who is
where and in what situation, but also to ask, ‘How are you?’ Small talk is very
important,” she explains. “Obviously people need attention.”
also the issue of terminology, Ben-Artzi says.
“‘Homeless’ is someone
without a home, and ‘dayar rehov’ is someone who lives on the streets. The more
correct term is dayar rehov.”
Ben-Artzi explains that while a person who
walks down the streets of Tel Aviv may get the impression that there are many
homeless, not all of them are truly without a home.
“Some may use drugs,
or may go to the central bus station to buy or sell, it doesn’t mean they don’t
have a home to go to. They may be there for a few days and then they go
And many of those actually living on the city’s streets are there
“Here you see Moshe with the green pants,” Cohen-Touboul says,
pointing to a man sitting on the sidewalk. “He has been on the streets for
several years, and he doesn’t want any assistance.
These are people who
live the street life. The way to bring them in is to let them get used to
Cohen-Touboul breaks the unit’s work with its subjects into three
main categories: those who are in a chronic state of crisis and treat the
streets as their home; those who have been placed in temporary housing or
receive rental assistance for an apartment and who are in the treatment process;
and those who are returning to society.
Assistance to those living on the
street comes in several forms, among them housing in temporary
Called gagonim, they are managed by Lasova, a non-profit
organization, which also counts Tel Aviv’s Lasova soup kitchen among its many
“We provide people with shelter,” Lasova founder Gilad Harish
“The municipality provides them with social services.”
municipality also owns the buildings in which the gagonim are
According to Harish, the first gagon was established in 1986.
“It was a very small project which cost approximately $500 per month. We never
thought it would grow like this.”
But the wave of Russian immigration in
the early ’90s changed things – suddenly the need for assistance was great, and
Lasova was integrated into the municipal action-plan. Today, the city of Tel
Aviv-Jaffa has three Lasova gagonim – one for male addicts, one for other men,
and one for women.
A group of men is gathered in the living area of the
gagon for addicts on Elizabeth Bergner Street. They sit in the dark on the
scattered couches and watch a movie in Russian on a large-screen TV, awaiting
the dinner hour. Others mill about their sleeping quarters. The big front door
opens into the yard.
It is a chilly evening, a fact that is not lost upon
Michael, a mustached, 60- year-old American and a resident of the gagon. He is
dressed in thick, gray corduroy pants and a sweater with a Nordic
“I didn’t expect to be here,” he says.
Well spoken, he
peppers his speech with colorful stories – his father worked in the Venezuelan
oil fields and was once the featherweight boxing champion of Europe; he himself
grew up in Florida, studied music in college, and was once invited to play
keyboard with the band Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“I wasn’t going to go onstage with
them,” he laughs. “I saw one of them take a bottle of rye and go ‘funk’ [he
feigns smashing a bottle] on the pianist’s head.”
In Israel since 1994,
Michael says he lost his apartment unexpectedly, during a period when he had
stopped working because he was feeling run down – something he later learned was
due to complications of diabetes.
“My plan is to get well and find an
apartment and a job and get out of here,” Michael says.
haven’t been easy. Everyone else speaks Russian, and Michael doesn’t.
feet are covered in sores and he has been drinking again, though he insists that
is not really a problem.
“Before I came here, I didn’t drink for four
months,” he says. “Since I came here and associated with people, it has been
harder not to drink. But I don’t think drinking 100 milliliters makes me [an]
Andrei Bozhko, a rehabilitative criminologist and manager of
the Bergner Street gagon, says that while it is not ideal to put people who are
clean into shelters housing those who are dealing with substance-abuse issues,
sometimes they are left with few options.
“There is a lack of space in
the shelter for normative males,” he says. “Of course, when someone comes and
they are not an addict, I try to put him in the gagon for normative males, but
there we have 14 beds, and here we have 44. In the winter we can’t always find
If the weather got really bad, he says, they would put people
on the couches before they would turn them away.
Tamar Klein agrees. She
is a social worker and the manager of the 20-bed women’s gagon on Tchelenov
“We currently have seven empty beds, but there is good chance
they will fill up soon because winter is coming.”
She says they would
probably find a way to get 25 women in if they had to, rather than turning
As with the men’s shelters, women arrive here in several
ways – on their own, via referral of a social worker, or sometimes by way of the
police or hospital.
“They all have harsh backgrounds, very harsh,” Klein
says, citing violence in the family as another shared denominator. As with the
men’s shelters, there are house rules, and a house mother to oversee them – no
drugs, alcohol, smoking or violence on the premises; no working in prostitution;
lights out at certain hours; assigned cleaning shifts; hours of the day when
residents must be outside the house taking care of personal matters; meetings
with social workers; doctor’s appointments; some are required to attend
Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
Breaking a house rule results in
punishment, which can range from being denied certain privileges to not being
allowed to come back into the house for two days, to being expelled for
The women have begun trickling back in. A couple are situated on a
large couch in the sunny living area. A few are in their rooms. It is almost 3
p.m., the hour at which they are supposed to return for the day.
the worst punishments we can give them here is no television.”
As she says this, voices rise. One resident wants a Russian show,
another wants Viva.
“Girls, if you argue, I will lock the TV on the
Hebrew channel,” Klein tells them. A woman with a Russian accent protests
loudly. Another woman looks on stoically. In the end, the Hebrew channel is
locked on for the day.
“We exercise a lot of compassion here,” Klein says
regarding the decisions the gagon staff makes. “These are people who have gotten
to the edge of the edge.
If they fall, we give them another chance, and
if they fall again, another, again and again until you just can’t
Klein describes the job of gagon manager as being a case
manager: “I accept the resident, I intake her, I contact her social worker, I
send her to treatment.”
The gagon staff sees to the residents’ most
immediate needs – food, shelter, clothing via Lasova’s Egged Beged clothing
donation program. They try to insert little bits of culture – an art class, a
poem read at the end of a group meeting. In the bigger picture, the municipality
remains responsible for the actual treatment process.
includes ensuring that those who have case files with the municipality Unit for
the Treatment of the Homeless receive all their rights – which, according to
Ben-Artzi, for those who qualify, can include up to NIS 1,170 in rental
assistance from the Construction and Housing Ministry, and a guaranteed minimum
income of NIS 1,200 from the National Insurance Institute.
Members of the
Unit for the Treatment of the Homeless assist subjects in their application
This can range from helping them complete paperwork to
actually going with them to the various government offices. The municipality
also provides emergency services such as getting people admitted into and
actually taking them to rehabilitation programs, and distributing blankets and
tea on cold winter nights. Seventy-five percent of the unit’s budget is funded
by the Welfare and Social Services Ministry; the other 25% is funded by the
Even with all these efforts, there is still
something lacking, according to Harish.
“There needs to be an established
place for people chronically living on the streets – those who come for a week
and then leave, and then come for a month and then leave. They are permanently
homeless people,” he says.
“We offer temporary shelter – they need a
permanent place. And it needs to be taken care of in a central way, so that the
government manages the treatment, and not the
Cohen-Touboul is of similar opinion.
thing that can happen for those living on the streets is for the country to
establish sheltered housing,” she says. “The issue isn’t just financial – even
when you give them an apartment, you need to teach them how to manage their
lives in an apartment.
They need a place where they will be watched over,
taught and protected – they are a weaker population.”
When asked, she
says that while the implementation of “wet” shelters (shelters that accept
addicts, as long as they do not use substances on the premises) have helped
reduce the numbers of deaths on the street, she still estimates some 20 people
die outdoors in Tel Aviv each year. She fears Victoria might become one of
“Tell her I’m alive, tell her I’m surviving,” Victoria yells to
Cohen-Touboul as the car pulls away from the sidewalk.
She wants her to
pass this message on to her regular social worker. Victoria’s liver is
something the unit’s staff knows from her medical checkups after one of
stays in rehab.
“I’m sure somewhere inside of her she realizes
live a long life, and apparently she has accepted it in her own way,”
Cohen-Touboul says sadly.
The car is already on Ibn Gvirol
away from the reality of Victoria. But Cohen-Touboul is still thinking
“That’s an extreme example of someone who you see is close
She barely walks, she’s robotic. Victoria knows her liver is done and
completely flowering, glowing and happy to see us,” she says. “It’s as
entertaining us in her living room. It’s a picture worth 1,000 words...
Victoria, a picture worth 1,000 words....”The names of some subjects
have been changed to protect their identities.