A house by the sea

The story of two Christians who establish a rehabilitation center in Yaffo for those addicted to drugs and alcohol.

homeless 88 (photo credit: )
homeless 88
(photo credit: )
It's a block from the Gesher Theater and 100 meters from the Tel Aviv-Yaffo promenade."Here, this is the place they collapse" - Yuri Lavrinov, 39, points to a corner under a staircase leading to the door of a shabby ground-floor apartment on Sderot Yerushalaim, Old Yaffo. "We always ask 'are you ready to quit this time?' and if the answer is positive we take them in. Some stay, some rest for a few days and leave. Some have been with us for years." Yuri's story isn't much different than those of his wards. Himself an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, he came to Israel nine years ago, hoping for a new life. That didn't work out. Lack of skills, inability to learn the language, the frustration of not belonging - all led to financial misfortune, drink and, finally, prison for debts. Three years ago he was out of prison and back on the streets. No job, no home. First, he went along with old friends and booze, but he soon realized he couldn't go on living like that. "We sat and thought - outside is only misfortune, poverty and death. We have to do something or we'll be lost forever." "We" was Yuri and his two friends, Oleg Matsev, 34, and Alex. This was when they rented their first house - the shabby apartment on Sderot Yerushalaim. They paid the rent and living costs with their combined unemployment benefits and took in the first group of people - also homeless and addicted, some to alcohol, others to drugs, mostly to both. The thing that united them was that they were Christians - some non-halachic Jews brought up in Christian surroundings, some immigrants brought in with their Jewish families. Mostly they are Russian speakers, though some, I am told, are native Israeli and South American. "Language is difficult, but we get by," says Yuri. "When Enrique (name changed) came, he didn't speak any Hebrew. We didn't speak any Spanish. But somehow we communicated. He stayed with us for five months." Today they call their small organization Hadavar ("The thing" in Hebrew), and it's in the process of being officially registered. The small place on Sderot Yerushalaim is still there - the first station for those who decide to give up their old lives. Another two apartments are now rented on the same street, and there is also a farmhouse in Atlit in the North for those who can't quit in the city. "There's a lot of temptation around," Oleg says. "Two steps out on the street there's a kiosk selling booze, and old friends drinking in the park. Some leave after a short time because they can't cope. They go back to their old lives. Some come back after a while, this time for longer. Some don't. Some die." "They come to this first place when they are ready. No questions asked. The only condition for living at the first station is to stay completely clean. They are provided with food and a place to sleep. It gets crowded, but at least it's clean and warm. We also hold Bible classes." After several months, residents can continue to the second place, a two-bedroom flat just two houses away that hosts 11 men. In total, the rehabilitation center cares for 32, with bunk beds on the enclosed balcony so as not to waste a square foot. In the living room there's a TV and a computer for the common use, and the bookshelves hold a selection of literature. "We would also like to have a house like this for women, but we can't afford it." The men who live in the second place are allowed to go out and smoke if they want. They also work. Yuri and Oleg have found a security company that provides 20 workplaces for the recovering, mostly to guard construction sites and parking lots. "It is one place that didn't ask for too many papers - not for security releases, not for firearm permits - as long as the job is done well. Those of us who are allowed to drive organize pickups with the two vans we bought for NIS 10,000 each," he adds proudly. "These people can't do much. They are still recovering, and their condition is sometimes so delicate they can hardly get out of bed. They've forgotten what a daily routine is. They can't feed themselves. Slowly, very slowly, they get back to normal." I ask about social services. "We don't use them much," Yuri says. "At first we collected our social benefits to pay for rent and food, but now, thank God, we don't need it anymore. People who stay here don't have to pay - everything is financed via the guard jobs held by those who can work. The rest can keep their social benefits to pay off debts or help their families. If one wants to, one can go to the government social workers or therapists, but few do. And the social benefits can themselves be a handicap, since they pose quite a temptation." "The worst day is the 28th," Oleg explains. "This is when social payments and unemployment benefits are due. Then old Yaffo becomes empty as everybody gathers in front of the post office to collect their money. On the 29th everyone is either high or drunk. On the 30th they are broke and if, God willing, they survive, by the beginning of the new month they come back to us." We drive around. It's nearly evening and we're heading off to church. Oleg points to a few green spots next to the "Wheel" - a monument at the entrance of old Yaffo. "This is where they hang out. The alcoholics. This is where I used to hang out, too. See, those are somebody's belongings out there (on the statue)." The church favored by the rehabilitation center is the Lutheran one in Old Yaffo, yet the clients include Russian Orthodox, Baptists and even Adventists. "We've got some musical instruments here and a sound system... got it with our own money. Andrew (he points to a man in his 40s setting up speakers) used to be a professional drummer. There's nothing else he knows, so he plays for the community. We even go to other communities in Jerusalem and the north to perform," explains Yuri. In the church there are a surprising number of children. The deacon, Leon, himself a former ward of Hadavar, is patiently explaining something to a little girl. "Most of the people in the center have nothing to go back to. No families, no jobs, no home," Yuri comments. "Even if they had one before, it's long gone. These people keep living with the memories of what they once were. They remember being professionals, having jobs, having families. It's one of the things we have to explain to them - that such things are all long gone. They can start a new life, a new family - perhaps with those same family members - but it will be new. What they have been through has changed them and their close ones. Some can revive the family they had once, or build a new relationship. Some can't. Some have forgotten what it's like to live on their own, to take any kind of responsibility. That's why we have that third place - it's home for people who have finished the treatment and are clean of alcohol and drugs but have nowhere else to go. If they decide to, they can stay there helping newcomers." Still, being on their own is difficult. A year ago Hadavar had to sell all its computers and electrical appliances just to pay the rent. Few landlords let their places be used for a rehab, and renewing leases means taking chances - the landlords could change their mind, or make demands that will be impossible. The "first-stage" apartment has a kitchen that's coming apart, with cabinet doors hanging on nails and a broken window, but Yuri and Oleg are reluctant to ask the landlord to fix it. "He'll disregard it, or worse, will rethink the contract," Yuri says. "We can't really afford rent anywhere else in the Tel Aviv area."