‘We are the shame of this country’

Having turned down the city’s offer of a NIS 2,200 monthly grant for the winter, the Ben-Davids are still living in Sacher Park along with six other families that are holding out for public housing.

ben-david family tent city shachar park 521 (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
ben-david family tent city shachar park 521
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Six-year-old Oron and four-year-old Siral run around like most children. Quiet and well-behaved, they look for toys to play with and their parents ask them to go outside. In this case outside means exiting the fabric-covered shack that has become their home in Sacher Park. “We want the city to find a real absolute and better solution to our situation,” says Sharon Ben-David, the children’s father.
Ben-David and his wife Oshrit have been living in Sacher Park for seven months. “We came here before the protesters; it is important to point that out. We are not like the students, we are a real family. We were here before the social protests; in fact we moved here on July 7. Ours is not a protest just to make a point. We are real people whose problems deserve a real solution from the city and the government.”
The Ben-Davids explain that they were driven to this extreme choice by the cost of living in Jerusalem. “We didn’t want to leave Jerusalem, we wanted to raise our children in the Holy City, like we were raised here,” says Oshrit. But the bills piled up and they could no longer afford their apartment.
Sharon recalls how their financial situation deteriorated.
“We got to the point where there was no money. The rent, the property tax, the education, the cost of living. I make NIS 5,500 a month and with that I have to support four people. With that salary there is always an overdraft at the end of the month in the bank. So then you take loans and then next month you begin again, but it is like a snowball, each month getting worse and worse. It came to the point where 80 percent of the money I make goes to rent, so there is nothing left to live on.”
They went to friends and family for help but after a while this was the solution they found.
Seven families are living in the northeast corner of Sacher Park, not far from the corner of Bezalel and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi streets. Their dwellings are of varying degrees of permanence. One woman is living in a tent.
One man has built a shelter with a combination of plywood, canvas and fabric. There are fences around the living spaces of the families and some have placed wooden pallets outside their temporary homes to create a semblance of personal space. Donated furniture, such as old couches and plastic chairs, dot the landscape.
“This is a centrally located place. It is strategic. It gives us something close to the Knesset so they cannot escape the reality,” says Sharon. He explains that he wants the public to know about the situation and he wants the government to understand the problems that families like his face. The couple say they want a permanent solution that involves public housing.
The Ben-David family has one of the more well-constructed dwellings in the park. It is a rectangular structure, with walls of canvas and fabric, about eight meters long and four meters wide. The room has been divided into two parts. In one “room,” two mattresses have been placed next to one another to form a bed. The other has a large couch and a wood stove.
Sharon has attached a pipe to the stove so that the smoke goes out through one of the walls. He has managed to gather some wood from the area and has piled it in the corner of the room.
“The wood stove is cheap, much cheaper than heating that you would have in a normal house, so actually it is a good deal,” he says. One of our friends gave it to us. Like most of the stuff we have here, we received it as donations from members of the public, or from friends and family who have been very supportive.
This is one thing we learned here, that many people are willing to help but the government and city are not able to provide a solution. They offered us some small amount of money to rent a place, NIS 2,200 a month, but that isn’t enough.”
A municipal spokesman confirmed that any family living in Sacher Park that showed Prazot (the Jerusalem Municipal Housing Company Ltd.) a signed rental contract would be entitled to the grant, which the city negotiated “despite the fact that housing is not the municipality’s responsibility but the Construction and Housing Ministry’s.”
“The municipality continues to provide the the tent dwellers with a unique aid package and will continue to provide municipal resources to the residents to help them reach a [permanent living] arrangement,” the spokesman says, adding that he hopes the families still living in Sacher Park will sign a rental agreement and evacuate their tents.
“It is important to note that the municipality is not opposed to the public protest against the government, but it is opposed to the protest site becoming a temporary residence. The tent grounds in Sacher Park are not habitable and the families living there have turned it into a safety and hygiene hazard,” he concludes.
BEN-DAVID DESCRIBES how he feels abandoned by the social protesters who went home after the summer.
“The country abandoned us. We are the shame of this country.” The last sentence is one he mentions again and again, and which he has emblazoned on the outside of his domicile along with the quote: “I am not a turtle, I don’t have my house on my back.”
The couple say they have received eviction notices and have had to go to court several times, most recently on January 22. The Jerusalem District Court announced a stay of eviction on January 26 and the documents were delivered to the couple on the 29th.
The family has until March 10 to leave their makeshift apartment. In the recent case before the court, the Ben-Davids were sued by the Jerusalem Municipality, the Construction and Housing Ministry and Prazot. Included with the court documents given to the family is a map outlining the route of the Jerusalem Marathon, which passes through the park. Evidently the city wants the homeless people removed by the time international participants come for the marathon, which is scheduled for March 16.
Oshrit and Sharon Ben-Dor were married in 2005. The offspring of immigrants from Morocco, they both grew up in Katamon.
Sharon, who is 39, served in the IDF and stayed on as a career soldier for several years. Later he got work as a municipal garbage truck driver. His wife, who is 28, looks after the children. The couple says that the children have adjusted to their life in the park.
“They still attend the same school in Katamon and their friends are supportive,” says Oshrit. There are other children in the neighboring homeless structures and they have friends from school. Even with the cold Jerusalem winter and the frequent rains, Oshrit remains steadfast. “We have gotten used to this hardship. We don’t fear it anymore.” They have no trouble with the people who come to the park to barbecue or jog.
The family used to have an electricity hookup nearby but they say it was turned off by the city. “Electricity is intermittent. We have a generator, which we use sometimes. We have a fridge, but we no longer use it to keep food cold. Instead we use it to store the food to protect it from the rats,” says Oshrit. She shows off several photos they have taken of rats that they caught using traps. Oshrit fiddles with an iPhone as she explains that they have been lucky to have electricity from across the park, where there are also toilets and a shower. “We have hot water there for showers. It is also hit-or-miss, but we are able to shower.”
Sharon describes his situation as one for which he is seeking a permanent solution. “Even though it is true that animals live better than us, we are not ashamed to live like this until the government changes the public-housing criteria and gives us a real solution.”
He thinks that it is harder to live in Jerusalem now than it was 30 years ago. But one thing has come full circle. “When the new immigrants came here in the 1950s they lived in tents in the Katamonim. Today it is like a transit camp,