Healing homeless youth

Beit Hashanti's high rehabilitation rate proves what can be accomplished with only a little money, but a lot of care.

By MEREDITH PRICE LEVITT
June 25, 2008 16:42
Healing homeless youth

sitting youth 88 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? (Isaiah 58:7) From a distance, the six-story building on Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv looks like an artfully decorated youth hostel or a funky boutique hotel. At the base of each glass balcony, paintings of abstract shapes and shadowy figures bring a fantastic world of bright colors and underwater fantasy to tawny balconies overlooking Metzitzim Beach and the azure water of the Mediterranean. In the late afternoon, the building takes on a rosy glow as the fading sun slips beyond the horizon. But this is neither a hostel nor a hotel. It's a home for teenagers at risk, many of whom have been abused, orphaned, and are homeless. A large sign above the door reads "Beit HaShanti" in swirling Hebrew letters. The building's two upper floors are dedicated to entertainment and special programs, and one has a large, empty space for therapy sessions while the other is full of plush couches, a kitchenette, a desktop computer and a flat-screen television. Each of the six floors is painted a different color, and the walls are lined with paintings and photographs done by Beit HaShanti residents over the years. Several large aquariums teem with beautiful goldfish, whose slow movements through the water add to the relaxed ambiance of the place. Currently home to some 40 youth aged 12 to 21, Beit HaShanti was founded by Mariuma Klein, an Israeli who spent three years on the streets of Boston as a teenager, fleeing an abusive home and a bad relationship with her mother. "There were lots of misunderstandings between me and my mother during those years. That's where I learned what it was like to be a kid on the street, and got into drugs," she says. "Kids don't run away without a reason, and I was neglected and abused. There was a lot of violence in my home, and this past is what allowed me to found the Beit HaShanti home. I understand these kids because I've been through [what they're going through] myself." Upon arriving in Israel at age 16, Klein enrolled in a religious boarding school in Kfar Saba. "I decided not to be a victim anymore. It's a decision… and I decided not to live the sickness of others for any longer." Always a strong believer in God, Klein was searching for answers. After a few months, she left school to spend a year in Sinai. She later returned to Holon, her mother's hometown, and got her high-school diploma. "I did full army service on a kibbutz during the [1982] Lebanon War. I [taught] soldiers during my service, and that's where I really got started in the welfare field." After finishing her army service, Klein moved to Tel Aviv and got pregnant with the first of her three daughters. Around the same time, she and her then-partner, Dino Gershuni, started hosting runaways in their home on Fridays, serving leftover food they found in the city's Carmel Market. "We didn't have any money to buy food, but I was able to get what I needed from the market's trash and feed everyone for Kabbalat Shabbat… Word started to spread and more and more kids started coming every week." Almost 10 years later, in 1992, Klein established the Beit HaShanti Association. Until a few months ago, when she married for the first time, she and her three daughters lived in the Beit HaShanti house. "It was time for me to establish my own home elsewhere after my marriage, and Beit HaShanti needed more space. One day, I hope I can return." Last September, work on Tel Aviv's new subway prompted the Beit HaShanti house to move from Neveh Zedek to its temporary location on Hayarkon Street, which then featured plain, white walls. Today, in addition to the colorful paint job and soft, plush furniture, the rooms are clean, the kitchen is well-stocked, the computers are new and the kids look well cared-for. "The main thing is to make this feel like a real home," Klein says, pointing out that she found most of the home's furniture on the street, used, and reupholstered it. "If one of the kids here needs help, I'm here for them," she says. According to the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, there are 330,000 youth aged 12-18 at risk in Israel today. The numbers climb even higher when the 18-21 age group is included, reaching 375,000. According to Elem, a non-profit organization for runaway, homeless and neglected Israeli and Arab youth in distress, there are at least 1,000 homeless youth between the ages of 18 and 26 in Tel Aviv alone, 75 percent of whom are drug addicts. Yet once youth at risk are over 18, the number of options for either government-funded or privately-funded help narrows. Elem runs a drop-in center in Tel Aviv that provides basic needs like hot meals, warm clothing and showers for young people aged 16-25, but although they do help kids to locate temporary living accommodations in hostels or rented apartments, they do not provide accommodations. The WIZO Institute, the National Council for the Child, the Immigrants Associations, Eli and the Tel Aviv Municipality also provide some assistance, but most of them only give partial, short-term solutions. The MOW youth hostels, founded by Leon Mow, accept kids up to age 18, but no other institutions exist - apart from Beit HaShanti - where youth on the street over age 18 can find a place to sleep. Beit HaShanti, which gets a small percentage of its funding from government agencies with the majority coming from private donors, doesn't put time limits on the length of stay and kids of all races, religions and origins are welcome. There is one caveat: Beit HaShanti only accepts kids who want help, which means that it isn't an option for hard-core substance abusers and addicts. "Our doors are open 24 hours a day, and we have kids who come for a few days and others who stay for years," says Klein, leaning back into a velvet armchair. "But we only take the ones who want help, the ones we can help." Perhaps the fact that Beit HaShanti only accepts street youth who still have a glimmer of hope is one underlying reason for its high rehabilitation rate. In 1998, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem did a study comparing various therapeutic environments for runaway and homeless youth. Research conducted on a sample group of 138 young people at Beit HaShanti revealed that 55% of the youth who had left the home were living independently and had not returned to the streets or reverted to drug and alcohol abuse, or to crime. In addition, the study found, 23% of the youth still living at Beit HaShanti showed signs of rehabilitation. "I don't know exactly what their method is, but it's working - over and over again," says Nava Rachamim, head of the Municipal Welfare Department. For Klein, beyond the fact that Beit HaShanti is a real home in a caring environment, one of the most critical factors in the road to recovery is her holistic approach, which she calls "Shantherapy." This includes everything from piano lessons to horseback riding and psychodrama to belly dancing. Some of the alternative therapies offered, like homeopathy, Shiatsu massage, Reiki and reflexology, are designed to teach victims of physical and sexual abuse that physical contact doesn't have to hurt and can, in fact, heal. The youth at Beit HaShanti also learn what it feels like to help others - this past Pessah, some of the residents helped load minivans with food parcels for 140 hungry families in Jerusalem and Safed. Klein calls this project "a mitzva between the Beit HaShanti kids and [the families.] These kids don't have anything to give, but it's critical that they learn the importance of giving." Miri Ratu, 22, who spent four years at Beit HaShanti, says the home saved her life. When she arrived at age 16 her father had died and her mother was an abusive alcoholic. "I was on the streets, and someone told me about Beit HaShanti. I thought I didn't have any place in this world, no one loved me, and I was questioning why I was here on earth," Ratu says after giving Klein a big hug. But the transition from the cold, lonely streets full of heroin addicts and violent crime was not without difficulty. "I wasn't used to having order in my life, and in the beginning the lack of space was hard to deal with," she says, pushing dark ringlets of hair out of her face. "I wasn't on the streets as much as a lot of other kids, and it's always tough to hear about someone who was here, who you met, and who died of an overdose. It happens," she adds. When she talks about life after Beit HaShanti - making friends, having a boyfriend, serving in the army, renting her own apartment and working at Cellcom - it's hard to imagine that she was ever a depressed, lonely girl. A bright smile, revealing a set of metal braces, lights up her face as she talks about her accomplishments and her hopes for the future. The story of Shirel, a 20-year-old who still lives at Beit HaShanti, is similar to Ratu's. Originally from Netanya, he had been living on the streets after leaving a violent, abusive household. He says he used to go to school carrying a backpack, and although many of his friends knew he was homeless and sleeping on benches, no one helped him. But he was determined to stay in school despite his difficult circumstances. At first, he was afraid to come to Beit HaShanti because of the rumors he'd heard. "People said it was a place where a lot of kids smoke weed, and all they did was sit around all day, so I was worried about coming here," he says. "When I got here, I realized it's not like that, and Mariuma helped me figure out a way to take the bus to Netanya every day so I could stay in my school." Today, after finishing his high-school matriculation, Shirel is serving in the IDF. "A lot of people can't believe that with all my problems, I'm in the army now. I had a lot of anger and selfishness to deal with, but coming here gave me the self-confidence and strength I needed. Now I realize that everything is a decision, it's all in my head." And although he says there are occasional problems with theft and disagreements, his overall experience at the home has been extremely positive. "It's very important that kids who are going through hard times know that they can ask for help. Don't wait until you get into a situation that you want to hurt yourself or others. Come here, talk about it, try it out, get help," he urges. Alexander Koranovsky, an 18-year-old Russian oleh who was born in Azerbaijan to Muslim parents, puts his thumb and forefinger so close together, almost touching, to illustrate a point. "This is how close I was to turning to drugs," he says. When he talks about the violence and abuse in his home, a faraway look comes into his eyes. He turns around and lifts up his shirt to show his back, lined with deep scars from perpetual abuse at home. "I was working odd jobs to pay for school and pay all the bills at home for my grandfather and grandmother, who took me in when I was 10 after my mother died and my father disappeared," he says slowly. "Eventually, I ran out of money and my grandfather started beating me and threw me out of the house." At Beit HaShanti, Koranovsky says, he feels like part of a big family. He says Klein is an "amazing lady" and generous mother figure. "I don't know how I could ever thank them enough for what they've done for me here." Every young resident has a story to tell, but the one thing they share is a willingness to be helped and a desire for a better future. "A lot of youth aren't ready to get help or feel they don't deserve it," says Klein. "But I can only help the ones who want help." She says the most heartbreaking part of her work is to see the number of mothers who don't want their children anymore. "As a woman and a mother, I still have a hard time understanding that - even after seeing it for… years." In 2000, Klein received the President's Volunteer Award and was chosen to light a torch at the Independence Day celebration on Mt. Herzl. "Everyone sees the house and they think that because we're famous now in Israel and we've received so many awards [Beit HaShanti was also given the Tel Aviv Municipality Award in 2006] we don't need any more money. But it's a constant struggle to find enough money to keep going and make sure we can help as many kids as possible," she says. "I always tell people that by giving money, they are not investing in the organization, they are investing in the children, in the future." To make a donation, volunteer or get more information, visit www.shanti.org.


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