Recession leaves NGO struggling to stem increase in teens at risk

Elem reports 12% rise in 12-14 year-olds on the streets.

elem (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As the number of teenagers neglected, abused and in need continues to grow, one of Israel's main non-profits charged with helping them is feeling the pinch of the economic downturn and has already started cutting back on services aimed at helping this disenfranchised population, The Jerusalem Post was told Monday. "The recession is reducing our donations and if we don't have the funding then we will have to seriously cut back on our services," said Tzion Gabai, Director of the NGO Elem, which presented its annual report to President Shimon Peres on Monday. Gabai said that the organization had already been forced to cut NIS 3 million from its annual NIS 31m. budget and has shaved some 5 percent off employee's salaries. Its programs, which are designed to support teenage runaways, education system dropouts, young substance abusers and more return to mainstream society, have already been curtailed, including its unique mobile outreach unit that has cut its weekly workload by one day. "I just don't know where this situation will lead," said Gabai glumly. "But if it continues like this we will really have to think about closing down some of our programs completely." As services aimed at helping disaffected youth are reduced, the organization highlighted in its report Monday that the number of transient teenagers either living on or roaming the streets at night has significantly grown over the past year, as well as a sharp rise in those involved in substance abuse or working as prostitutes. The average age of those out on the streets at night has fallen too, with the number of teens aged 12-14 rising by 12%, found the report. Overall, 2008 saw a 14% increase in the number of vagrant youths out on the streets compared to the previous year but what is perhaps most alarming in the report is the 17% increase in teenage girls out on the streets who talk of being sexually abused, raped or victims of incest. "We are presented every day with these stories," wrote the organization in the report. "What is most disturbing is that a growing number of the girls are being paid for keeping silent about the abuse with material goods and money." Out of 30,000 teenage girls that Elem estimates are in some form of distress and who occasionally spend nights sleeping out on the street, only roughly half are known to social welfare services and are being treated. "The welfare service simply does not have enough resources to reach all of these needy teens," commented Gabai, adding, "What exists today is only enough to focus on the most urgent cases and the less extreme situations are simply overlooked." Elem's report also highlighted the plight of Israel's immigrant youth population - mostly those of Ethiopian or Russian-speaking backgrounds - which, Gabai pointed out, had been deeply affected by the economic situation. The report, which is based on information collected by Elem's professionals, government data and reports from other non-profits, found that there had been an increase of almost 30% in the number of immigrant teens abusing alcohol and sniffing drugs such as Tipex, gas or glue. "Many of these teens come from already struggling families and the economic situation has made their lives far worse," explained Gabai. "In many cases their parents have to take on extra work in order to make ends meet and that means the children are left unsupervised during night time hours." Gabai said he welcomed steps taken by the new government this week to establish a financial aid package aimed at bailing out struggling non-profits. "It's not enough that the government helps only the private sector," he said. "This package will hopefully give us a framework so that we can continue to do our work." In the meantime, Elem launched its annual "Lights of Hope" fund-raising campaign Sunday, calling on the public to donate NIS 10 each to "light up" one of 600,000 light bulbs on an enormous Star of David flag attached to the side of the Azrieli Center's square building in Tel Aviv. Those interested can send an SMS with the number '10' to 6009. "It's only NIS 10 per person but it will really go a long way to change a young person's life," finished Gabai.