It is a chilly, late Thursday night in downtown Jerusalem, and the mood among the teenage runaways hanging out there isn't as weightless as usual. Recently there has been a run of tragedies. Between mid-February and early March, three young street people in the capital died - an 18-year-old hanged himself on the eve of being drafted, a 21-year-old deliberately electrocuted himself, and a 24-year-old was beaten to death in a fight. All three had run away from home and been on and off the streets for years, all had problems with drugs, alcohol and/or mental health.
In Kikar Zion, where the Rehov Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall ends at Jaffa Road, it's hard to tell in the thick crowd of teenagers who's a runaway and who's just a scruffily-dressed, hopped-up high school kid running around with friends. A police car is parked in the square; the officers aren't doing much besides watching the passersby.
A van run by Elem, the main private organization helping "youth in distress," is parked nearby, and has set out a table with coffee and pastries, hoping to draw youngsters in trouble to come talk to the volunteers, who will try to steer them to get the help they need. The volunteers and the van will be there until dawn.
Just off Jaffa Road, on Rehov Yoel Salomon, is "Crack Square," where many English-speaking runaways, often yeshiva dropouts, like to congregate. Down the narrow streets of Nahalat Shiva, past the masses of young people gathered outside the pubs, in a clearing surrounded by old stone buildings facing Rehov Hillel, is "Moon Square." This is the hangout favored by teenagers who live in abandoned local buildings, or "squats," and who stay drunk on cheap vodka.
In Kikar Zion, a woman wearing a long dark coat staggers through the noisy crowd toward the Elem van. A pair of volunteers go up to her and she collapses in their arms. She is 20, living on her own, suffering from a combination of alcoholism and severe mental problems. She left home when she was about 15. I ask a source who knows the woman's history if it was her mental and alcohol problems that drove her into the street, or if it was the other way around. The source replies that the root of all her problems was her upbringing at home, and leaves it at that.
Among the runaways are young haredi boys who can't live with the restrictions of haredi life, and whose parents cannot accept this. "Tonight we had a haredi boy who was 14 who showed up at the van," says Or Har-Even, who runs Elem's night detail in downtown Jerusalem. He adds that the volunteers urged the kid to go home in the meantime, and to contact them if he wanted to talk some more. But within an hour the boy, his white shirttails hanging out of his black trousers, shows up in Moon Square in the company of another Elem volunteer. It's about one in the morning. Har-Even talks privately with the volunteer, then calls Atnahta, a Jerusalem hostel for teenage runaways, to see if it can take the boy in for the night, which, because he is under 18, will first require his parents' approval.
About a dozen teenagers are sitting, standing or lying around the stone benches in Moon Square. A couple of empty vodka bottles and a few bags filled with clothes and other belongings lie on the ground. A boy is walking around on his hands. Another pees in the bushes. From an upstairs window, someone is doing loud bird calls; inside is an abandoned apartment, a squat. The runaways don't tell strangers the locations of these squats because police are eager to raid them.
"Eitan" is an outgoing boy of 19 with devilish good looks who's been sleeping for the last few months in his mother's home because, he says, "it's convenient. I have my own entrance from the yard, nobody bothers me." (The real names and identifying characteristics of the runaways are not divulged.) But this could change anytime; when he's not sleeping, Eitan is roaming the city and hanging out in the squats with his old friends. He left home at 14, he says, because "I hated my mother and I hated the world," and since then has lived in squats, or in a series of juvenile institutions, and supported himself by begging, stealing and selling drugs.
A typical day in the squats, says Eitan, would begin in late morning, when the 10 or so young transients sleeping there would start to get up. "We'd have coffee, sit around and talk for about an hour," he says, "then we'd go to Galgal [Elem's local drop-in center for young street people] to have a shower and something to eat, then we'd go out and start drinking."
Today Eitan lives for two things: vodka and being with his latest girlfriend. His only fear is being caught once again by the police and being jailed, this time as an adult. Fidgety and easily distracted - "I have ADHD," he says with a grin - he declares he has everything he needs and is hopelessly addicted to alcohol and the freedom of street life. "I don't want to quit drinking," he says.
A drunken teenage friend standing next to him smiles in agreement. Without spelling it out, Eitan indicates that he tried to quit drinking more than once, but the withdrawal symptoms were too much for him.
Leaving Moon Square and walking down Rehov Hillel, Har-Even sees one of the regulars who'd been sitting on the benches, an alcoholic boy who once offered to show him the locations of several downtown Jerusalem squats, something that could make Elem's job much easier.
"How about showing me now?" Har-Even asks the boy.
"Now isn't the time," the runaway answers, crossing to the other side of the street. "Everybody's either in jail or dead."
THERE ARE at least 30,000 teenage runaways in the country - about one out of 25 of all adolescents, says Zion Gabbai, director of Elem. They range from kids who leave home periodically for up to a week at a time - the majority - to those who haven't been home in years. Nearly all of them abuse drugs and/or alcohol, he says. At least one in four, mainly girls but also boys, occasionally trades sex to an adult for a place to sleep and food, while about 1,000 are outright prostitutes, working for escort services or finding clients on their own, frequently on the Internet.
Not all the runaways go missing from home; many have fled boarding schools or juvenile institutions. The "hard cases" who sleep in squats, stairwells, parks and under bridges also number about 1,000, Gabbai says, basing his estimates on the young people Elem contacts at its vans, which are stationed in 17 cities, and on night patrols. Runaways who don't sleep rough usually pool their money to rent cheap apartments.
In the decade that Elem has been operating the vans, the number of teenage runaways has about tripled, he says, citing several reasons, mainly increased economic pressure on parents, which causes a psychological strain that trickles down to the children.
"In the last 10 years," says Gabbai, "there's been a big rise in poverty and cuts in social services, welfare and education. Also there's been a large immigration, and a lot of the immigrants are still struggling. Many parents are working longer hours or evening shifts just to make ends meet, and many middle-class parents are spending more time at work so they can get ahead. There's also a loss of authority among parents - many of them have become too free, too permissive with their kids, they don't know how to set limits."
Over the last decade, not only has the size of the teenage runaway population changed, so has the profile. "If in the past, 90-95% of them were from poor families, now only about two-thirds are. You see a lot of runaways on the street who are dressed well; the problem is they've got nobody at home who knows how to look after them," Gabbai says.
Vodka, which can be bought for NIS 10 a liter, is a great economic equalizer among street kids. When it comes to drugs, those who are hard-up go for cheap highs like airplane glue, paint thinner or freon. Those with some disposable income can buy the "middle-class" drugs - marijuana, hashish and Ecstasy. The privileged can afford to indulge in cocaine or crack cocaine.
The high season for running away from home is summer, when there's no school or, for many youths, any daily schedule at all. Neither are there cold temperatures to keep them inside. Like ordinary youths, they head for the beaches and make their way down to Eilat.
In the last five or six years, but especially in the last year or two, another demographic change among the runaways has become apparent: they're getting a lot younger. "It used to be that you wouldn't see any kids on the street under 15, but now sometimes you see them 10, 11, 12 years old, mainly in the big cities. You'll see an 11-year-old kid asking for a sandwich, and he's being looked after by an older brother, who's maybe 16, because their parents are never home," says Gabbai.
Iu Tel Aviv, Gabbai says, groups of runaways can usually be found at night on the top floor of Dizengoff Center, lounging around the tables at McDonald's. "They look for leftovers," he says. But their main gathering place is Kikar Dizengoff, where they join a somewhat older crowd of street people, and where the graffiti and clothing fashion give them a group identity as "punkistim" and "anarchistim."
AS IN JERUSALEM'S Kikar Zion, it's not easy telling the runaways from the wild-looking but still-domesticated teenagers sitting around the Dizengoff Center McDonald's. I go up to a couple of girls who, on closer look, seem too fresh-faced and "straight-looking" to be runaways, and they confirm tha t they're not. Both 17, they come here to get together with teenagers they meet at parties and pubs.
"A lot of the kids say they don't live at home, but they really do. They're just posers, kids who want to rebel," says one girl. I ask if they want to rebel. "There's nothing to rebel against," answers the first girl. "Been there, done that," smiles the second.
Later, I approach a group consisting of two teenage male "freaks," a garishly made-up brunette and a pretty, well-groomed blonde. For street kids, they're surprisingly attentive and respectful. They tell me the only one of them not living at home is the blonde, who nods her head.
"I know, I don't look like I live on the street," says Hani. Her hair is clean, straight and in place with a pair of sunglasses perched on top, and she's wearing tight jeans and platform sandals. She is 16, but says the pubs sell her booze at night because she looks 18.
She left her parents' moshav about three months ago, she says, not because of any trouble with her parents - "They love me and would do anything for me; they still help me financially," Hani says - but because she couldn't take the boredom of moshav life and wanted to live in Tel Aviv. Now she says she rents an apartment with a few friends and works for a relative in the fashion business.
"If my parents lived in Tel Aviv, I'd live at home, no problem," she says, adding that she talks to them all the time and they don't pressure her to come home and go back to school. But as long as they're on the moshav, she's not moving back home. "I have everything I need here," she says.
But as the interview goes on, Hani's story becomes darker. "I went through a trauma, I tried to commit suicide, all sorts of things happened to me," she says. With the street kids she finds "acceptance." "Nobody here had an easy life," she points out.
As she throws her gleaming white handbag over her shoulder and heads down the stairs of Dizengoff Center, I can't decide if she's a poser, or if she's telling the truth, or if the truth is worse than she's telling.
In Kikar Dizengoff, the Agam fountain is spurting water. Around the fountain and on the benches are graffiti, nearly all in English with some Russian and Hebrew, that read: VIVA LA ANARCHY... FUCK SOCIETY... FUCK POLICE... PUNX UNITE... ISRAHELL.
About a dozen older, rough-looking transients are gathered around the benches. One of them keeps bouncing up and down. A whiny teenage boy is begging for "NIS 10 so I can buy something to eat." In the middle of these fellows is a sad-faced, silent girl with rainbow-dyed hair and badly-torn, patterned stockings. She sits slumped on the bench, except when she straightens up, takes a little plastic toy bottle out of her bag and starts blowing bubbles into the glowing night sky.
Agreeing to come over to a vacant bench and talk, Noa says of the transients, "These aren't my friends." Noa, 17, has been manic depressive since "age zero," she says, spending a few years in a mental hospital until her release several months ago, which was against her mother's wishes. Once out she headed for Tel Aviv, wandering the streets, meeting some runaways in the square and going to live with them in a succession of squats.
"I wanted to be free," she says. "For me it was really good, walking around the streets all day. It calmed me down. I slept a lot. I like to sleep a lot."
She went home about a month ago, she says, because her mother threatened to cut off her money for medication, which she needs to be able to function. Even though she's on her medication at the moment, she says, "I'm out of balance." Given her listlessness and quiet, I ask if she's feeling low. "No, I'm on a high," she says. "My thoughts are moving too fast."
Noa plans to stay at home with her mom until she's 18, then leave and try to make it as a rock 'n' roll singer. For tonight, she plans to hang around the square and go home around midnight. I ask if she wants to talk to someone who might be able to help her, and she replies, "Why? I already have a psychologist and a psychiatrist."
As she goes back to sit among the other runaways and transients, I ask if it's safe for her in Kikar Dizengoff. Smiling widely, she says, "There's no danger here."
FOR ALL the bleakness and tragedy in the lives of teenage runaways, there are several "first-aid" services like the Elem vans, as well as hot lines, hostels, halfway houses and other agencies they can turn to and get off the streets. Then, once they're physically and mentally ready, they can return home to their families, or, if that's not possible, go live with foster parents or in boarding schools.
In Tel Aviv, some 300 teenage runaways a year pass through Makom Aher and its three affiliated hostels, including Beit Dror, which is for homosexuals. (All privately-run services for runaway teenagers are overseen by the Welfare and Social Services Ministry's Youth Authority.) Alon Barmi, the hostels' director, says its rehabilitation program focuses on psychological counseling for both the runaways and their parents, as well as bringing order into the youngsters' lives with a strict, busy, daily schedule. The result, he says, is that in a matter of months, more than 90% of them go back to their parents or to the custody of other responsible adults.
Naturally, there are teenagers who end up back on the street. "A few months ago we had a boy at Beit Dror who'd worked for a long time as a prostitute," Barmi recalls. "He was 18, his parents were divorced and neither one of them knew how to be a parent. They couldn't handle that he was gay, and they weren't interested in being part of his rehabilitation. The boy was with us for about three months until he decided to leave and go back to prostitution."
But among runaways who go into such rehab programs, that unfortunate boy was the exception. A notable Beit Dror success story is Maya, 19, who says she left home three years ago when her parents became Orthodox. "I didn't believe in it and I didn't like the lifestyle," she says, so she ran away to the Tel Aviv streets for a couple of years, then turned her fortunes around at Beit Dror.
"Until then I never had people who would listen to me, not even my parents," she says, noting that while she talks to her parents regularly, she doesn't tell them she's a lesbian. Maya is now studying at college to be a youth "mentor," or counselor, and will soon be working as one at Makom Aher.
Unlike Beit Dror, with its vividly painted walls and steep, circular staircase, Makom Aher is a sterile-looking place, clean, tidy and beige. In one of the rooms, Shani, an earnest-looking girl of 17, says she ran away from home two years ago when the fights with her parents over her errant behavior became intolerable. On the streets in Tel Aviv she used marijuana, hashish, LSD and vodka.
"There were a few nights I slept in stairwells," she says. Finally a personal "trauma" landed her in a succession of closed institutions, including a mental hospital, until she arrived at Makom Aher last year. I ask if she wants to say what the trauma was; she shakes her head no. "But it's all right now," she says.
Shani is now waitressing and studying for her matriculation exams. When she turns 18, she wants to do national service, at Makom Aher if possible, then travel to India, then study special education "to help kids with problems." She says she's mended the rift with her parents, but when I ask if she wants to go home, she answers no.
"I have my own life now," she says. I ask if her parents want her to come home. "No," she replies with a fleeting, nervous smile. "They know it wouldn't work out."
TO MOST PEOPLE, teenage runaways are invisible. They look like other strange-looking young people, they hang out where hordes of other teenagers hang out, they spend the nights in places nobody sees. They are an underground community. Even when Jerusalem loses two of them to suicide and another to murder inside of two weeks, the news doesn't percolate to the surface of Israeli society. Underneath, among the runaways, though, the deaths have registered.
In Kikar Zion, towards 2 a.m., Elem volunteers drive the woman who collapsed in their arms back to her home. The 14-year-old haredi boy has been taken to the Atnahta hostel, but when the counselors call his parents, they insist that he be brought home immediately. The boy, however, refuses, so his parents agree to let him stay the night. "Let everybody in the family sleep it off, we'll see how things stand tomorrow," says Har-Even, head of Elem's night detail.
In Moon Square, Har-Even, a tall, soft-spoken man with a neatly-trimmed beard, throws his arm around Eitan, the voluble, handsome young alcoholic, and asks how he's doing with his girlfriend. "She's beautiful, isn't she?" says Eitan.
He seems in a good mood. When he's gotten through telling me his life story, I ask him his plans for the future.
"You mean what am I going to do? I'm going to die," he says.
Everybody's going to die, I point out.
"Yeah, but I'm going to die pretty soon. In about four or five years," he says matter-of-factly.
He maintains that he's not afraid, and seems like he's telling the truth. Glancing at the young drunks around him, Eitan adds, "When you abuse your body with alcohol like this - we don't live very long out here."
Later, as we're walking back up Nahalat Shiva, I ask Har-Even if this 19-year-old boy can still be saved. "It's complicated with him," he says. "The problem is that he's already been to so many rehab institutions, and it hasn't worked. But there's a chance he'll become tired of this way of life, which is really hard on a person, and he'll decide to quit drinking because it's easier than going on this way."
The other possibility, of course, is that Eitan will fulfill his prophecy and drink himself to a very early death.
Har-Even agrees that it's a depressing scene. I ask him if there's any hope in a place like Moon Square. Making his way through the crowd in the middle of a cold night, he says, "If there wasn't any hope, I wouldn't be there."