A toolkit for tackling homelessness

Government and non-profits adopt ideas from the business world to help Jerusalem’s roofless youth.

Art by Avi Katz (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Art by Avi Katz
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
ON A chilly early May evening, youth field worker Yotam Refaely made his rounds in and around Jerusalem’s central bus station.
His eyes scanned left and right as he walked through dark alleyways and by out-of-theway corners. He stopped often to peer into abandoned buildings. Refaely was on the lookout for at-risk teens, especially homeless youth, who are known to congregate ‒ even sleep ‒ in these places.
As he bent down to peak through a cracked windowpane in a large, empty structure across from the bus station, a terrible stench hit Refaely, who works for the Youth Advancement Division of Jerusalem’s Education Administration. The filthy mattresses and blankets, broken furniture, food wrappers and other detritus he spied signaled that this had been a “zula” or squat for dozens of homeless teens and young adults.
There was no longer anyone sleeping here, however. The building was recently evacuated and sealed. Some of the youth who once bedded down here will soon sleep in two new full-service shelters on which the city and its partners are spending just over 2.5 million shekels to prepare and open this summer.
Despite social service providers like Refaely saying for years that more assistance was required for homeless youth, it wasn’t until they started speaking the language of data and statistics that national and local authorities started getting the message.
This data on the urgent and dire needs of homeless youth was collected, analyzed and acted upon through an initiative led by the Jerusalem Innovation Team (JLM i-team), a consulting group funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies that reports directly to the mayor of Jerusalem and works to tackle strategic city challenges and seemingly intractable urban problems. Bloomberg Philanthropies, currently, also funds Innovations Teams in Tel Aviv and Beersheba, in addition to a number of North American cities.
JLM i-team introduced the language and tools of innovation into the daily work of social workers, educators and therapists working with homeless youth. It required them to think in counterintuitive ways.
“Data geeks” from the world of business and hi-tech convinced the social service providers that it was necessary to sometimes see drug-addicted teen prostitutes not as individuals, but rather as statistics, if they were to successfully reach solutions to improve their lives.
In 2015, a television news exposé by journalist Amnon Levy on Jerusalem’s homeless teens living in squalid squats in the city center shocked viewers and prompted Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat to act.
LEVY ESTIMATED that there were at least 1,000 homeless youth in Israel, with many of them wandering between major urban centers like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Eilat.
No one ‒ including the Jerusalem municipality ‒ had a handle on the numbers. How many at-risk youth were there in the capital? How many of them were homeless? How many organizations were helping them? No one knew exactly.
Barkat was confident the i-team’s innovative, disruptive approach could provide answers.
“As an entrepreneur, I have always focused on data-driven, results-oriented and out-of-the-box solutions to the city’s most pressing problems. Because of this, when the i-team first began their work in our city, I knew immediately that I wanted them to focus on our city’s youth at-risk. I have no doubt that the results of the i-team’s work in this area will have a great impact and will save lives in our city,” Barkat said in an email statement.
JLM i-team recruited the three municipal administrations charged with the care and treatment of the city’s at-risk youth, along with the NGOs working with this population, in a major joint effort of mapping and data collection. It was discovered that Jerusalem is home to 30,000 at-risk youth with levels of risk running the gamut from teens who demonstrate at-risk behaviors but live at home and go to school, to drug-addicted teens with mental health issues living on the streets and lacking fulfillment of their basic needs.
There are 298 programs for this population run either by the municipality or the 50 non-profit organizations working with at-risk youth, including 24 for the most in-danger youth. As of winter 2017, there were 168 teens and young adults ages 13-26 living in Jerusalem without a roof over their heads on a regular basis.
The i-team has not released a specific demographic profile of the homeless youth, but, based on the demographics of Jerusalem and its environs, it can be assumed that a significant portion ‒ if not the majority ‒ are from religiously observant Jewish families.
Although there already had existed several very temporary solutions for homeless youth looking for somewhere to sleep safely, there was only one shelter, run by the Elem organization. It had 12 beds, was open only overnight ‒ and was exclusively for women ages 18-26. (The Welfare Ministry is responsible for the care and housing of youth under age 18.) With the scope of the situation finally understood, JLM i-team project manager for youth at-risk Shai Moshe created an organizational structure to analyze the data and devise ways to use it to improve services for homeless youth. Finally, there would be cooperation and coordination resulting in better and more efficient service delivery and fewer kids falling through the cracks.
An eight-person strategy team consisting of the heads of the three municipal administrations dealing with at-risk youth, heads of NGOs and Moshe meets monthly.
A nine-member field team made up of representatives of the municipal education department’s Youth Advancement Division and NGO field workers also meets regularly.
The members of the field team have divided up responsibility to manage the cases of the individual homeless youth. They focus on work at the street level and share critical information with the strategic team, which is charged with combining this feedback with hard data to make the case for support from the municipality, the Welfare Ministry and other decision-makers.
Hadas Gol, manager of Elem’s center for homeless youth, finds working together with colleagues from the municipality and other NGO empowering.
“We had never sat together like this. We’d never coordinated and cooperated,” she tells The Jerusalem Report.
Moshe, who has a BA in social work and a master’s in organizational development, enjoys the challenge of teaching metrics to people more used to emotions.
He brings business intelligence tools to the work, including Microsoft’s Power BI, showing the social-service providers how to explore and manipulate data in real time.
Tools like these can help track the progress of work with homeless teens and also measure the time it takes to get them off the street ‒ both individually and in aggregate.
The strategic and field teams also work with the personas service design tool. In the business world, personas are archetypes created after exhaustive observation of potential users. In this case, Moshe and the youth workers use data collected on at-risk youth to create personas for treatment plans. This is where the social workers need to temporarily put aside their concern for the teens as individuals and categorize them as members of a group or type for the sake of proposing policy and requesting resources. “This was like teaching the social workers a new language,” says Moshe.
Based on the data, the initiative has come up with seven personas representing homeless youth in Jerusalem, each with a specific and unique combination of needs that must be met. One is “Transparent Sarah,” who survives by prostituting herself. She is “transparent” because she is given shelter by a pimp and, therefore, doesn’t appear homeless to people passing her on the street.
Another is “Ibrahim from East Jerusalem” who has difficulties with language and culture and, therefore, won’t take the initiative to seek help offered by various Israeli organizations.
According to Refaely, the 20 or so homeless youth he regularly works with in the areas in and around the Central Bus Station and Independence Park struggle with a variety of issues, including drug and alcohol abuse.
Social worker Danny Brooks, who does outreach to teens at the bus station with Refaely, specializes in helping addicted youth.
According to Brooks, synthetic marijuana, known colloquially as “Nice Guy” in Israel, has become a scourge among at-risk and homeless kids. A mix of botanical products and toxic chemicals, it can cause extremely dangerous physical and mental effects.
“I’ve seen kids really flip out from it,” says Brooks.
Some homeless youth struggle with psychiatric illness. Some deal with issues related to sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity. Some girls are pregnant, and both girls and boys turn to prostitution to survive. Some homeless youth also have police records or have gone AWOL from the army.
Working with at-risk youth is hard, but trying to help homeless teens and young adults get off the streets is especially challenging.
As the public learned from Levy’s TV report, most of these kids are totally disconnected from their parents and don’t even seek to return home.
“These are kids who are preoccupied with simply surviving from day to day, moment to moment. Homelessness doesn’t happen in a day. These are kids who don’t have an anchor, and often their parents are in survival mode themselves,” says Refaely.
Consequently, establishing trust is a major focus. Both Refaely and Brooks emphasized how long and hard the process of gaining trust can be. But, without it, they cannot work with a homeless teen on getting onto a healthier, safer, more stable path.
Teens, who already know the field workers, come up to say hello when they spot them working in the plaza across from the bus station. But those who are new to Refaely and Brooks are wary, even suspicious they are the police. The kids stick together in groups, often making it difficult for the field workers to have much-needed one-onone private conversations.
“There’s a lot of one step forward, two steps back, but we keep at it,” says Brooks.
REFAELY ADDS, “We are always walking a fine line so as not to lose the kids’ trust.
But I never give up on anyone.”
For this reason, the strategy team must sometimes advocate for solutions that literally meet the kids where they are. This is something included in the treatment plans proposed for the personas.
Those involved have found that solutions that work for other at-risk youth don’t always work for homeless youth.
Tzachi Golan, Refaely’s supervisor from the Youth Advancement Division gives the example of a homeless youth in need of mental health treatment. To obtain treatment through the Health Ministry, one needs a national identity number. However, many homeless youth were not in high school when teens receive their identity card, and they are also not in touch with their families to ask their parents for their number. Furthermore, the chances that an addicted or mentally-ill homeless youth would show up and stand in line (even with a field worker at their side) at the Interior Ministry to apply for an identity number are extremely low.
“It would make a lot more sense to figure out a way to bring needed treatment directly to the mentally ill youth on the street,” says Golan.
Brooks has long viewed the multitude of agencies and NGOs working with at-risk youth in Jerusalem as both a blessing and curse.
“If a kid needs a meal, there is, fortunately, always someone to provide one in Jerusalem,” says Brooks. “But the downside is that there are so many organizations with different approaches, and a lack of communication and coordination has led to duplication and overlap, but also kids falling through the cracks. The kids know how to play the organizations off each other and end up staying on the streets longer than necessary.”
In the last year and a half, the i-team initiative has made significant strides in mitigating these drawbacks. Pleased with interim results, Mayor Barkat has agreed to hire and fund a youth-at-risk manager within the municipality. The plan is to eventually have three such managers, one for each sector of the city’s population: general, Haredi and Arab.
The homeless youth pilot has proven so successful that the model is beginning to be implemented as the standard for work with at-risk youth in neighborhoods across the city.
“There has definitely been more awareness and focus on youth at-risk and homeless kids from the authorities since the i-team started working on this. There has been much more of a proactive effort to find and identify homeless kids and find solutions for them,” says Refaely.
Refaely was relieved not to find any youth bedding down on the streets or in abandoned buildings the evening he made his rounds in the area around the Central Bus Station.
Still, there were too many young teens hanging out at the station close to midnight – but at least they would eventually be going home to sleep.