Wandering Jews

There are roughly 3,000 homeless in Israel, about half of whom live in the country's financial capital. How do they end up in the streets - and who breaks their fall?

drugs mag 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
drugs mag 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The van pulls up to Tel Aviv City Hall, where the covered passageway, warmed by steam vents, is a popular place for the homeless to sleep on cold nights. Michel Even-Chen, a field worker who searches the city for the homeless and tries to convince them to come in for treatment, finds three potential candidates. One is sleeping on a bag of old clothes, with empty potato chip bags lying nearby; another is sitting on a step; the third is walking around holding an empty soda bottle. All three are Russian immigrants, at least two are alcoholics and one of the alcoholics has been in and out of mental hospitals. "Vodka... vodka," says the mentally ill man, dirty, disheveled and foul-smelling, with dried blood over his eye, blaming the vodka for landing him here. When the sleeping alcoholic is awakened, he seems out of it, so Even-Chen just lights a cigarette for him, gives him a business card and moves along. The man with the soda bottle, decently dressed and lucid, says "of course" he's all right, and walks away, but the field worker is convinced he's living on the streets. "What's he doing walking around this place at night with an empty soda bottle in his hand?" he says. The van stops alongside an empty bus bench on Rehov Ibn Gvirol, where a certain homeless man can usually be found sleeping at night. Even-Chen goes out to talk to the counterman at the candy store behind the bench, then comes back into the van. "He died about a week ago," he says. The van drives up to an apartment house on Pinsker, and the field worker goes around back into a pitch-black, urine-smelling, trash-covered shed where a man is sleeping on a mattress. "Andrei! Andrei!" Even-Chen calls out. (The real names of homeless people are not used.) Finally Andrei wakes up. Getting down on his haunches next to the mattress, Even-Chen gently urges him to come to the municipal office in Jaffa where the city's homeless can get help. "We'll get you a place to sleep, food, clothes, we'll get you on welfare. I'll take care of you. What do you say?" he asks. "Tomorrow," says Andrei, turning over. "Good night," says the field worker and heads back out to the van. Looking like a brawny beachcomber in three-quarter-length khakis and loafers without socks, Even-Chen, 51, has been working with addicts, alcoholics and the homeless since he got off drugs himself 17 years ago. This night he has several more street people to find on Dizengoff, Allenby, the park behind the Carmel Market and a bus stop in North Tel Aviv. Nobody knows how many homeless people there are in Israel, but Dr. Benny Avrahami, head of the Tel Aviv municipal authority that deals with the city's homeless, offers a rough estimate of 3,000, about half of whom live in Tel Aviv. About 70 percent are Russian immigrants. A large majority are addicted to drugs or alcohol. One in 10 is a woman. The number of homeless rose steadily in the 1990s with the wave of Russian immigrants, who have a high rate of alcoholism and who, on the whole, took a steep fall in status after they arrived in this country. But since 2002, the number of homeless has begun to diminish. Asked why, Avrahami replies frankly, "We don't know." The influence of the economy on the size of the homeless population seems to be marginal; only one in five landed in the streets strictly because of financial ruin, often brought on by a costly divorce, he says. Osnat Cohen, head of the social work staff at the Homeless People's Treatment Unit in Jaffa, says a spot check of the office's clients last year found that 82% had gotten off the street and were living with a roof over their heads. Most were renting one-room slum apartments with government rent subsidies, while the others were often in institutions such as rehab centers, mental hospitals or prisons. Given that homeless people are commonly thought to be incorrigible, to be "addicted" to living in the street and virtually impossible to rehabilitate, getting 82% of them housed in one way or another seems an astounding success rate. But the term "success," in this case, is relative. Hardly any improve to the point where they're living what could be called "normal" lives - at best they work irregularly at menial jobs, usually continue abusing drugs or alcohol - if not as much as before - and remain largely isolated, having little or no relationship with family or friends, says Cohen. "The hardest part of rehabilitation for homeless people is the emotional part," she adds. "On one hand, getting off the street and getting cleaned up gives them a certain feeling of self-worth. But it also makes them sadder, because only now do they look around and realize how little they have, how much they missed in life." The one thing all homeless people have in common, say social workers at the Homeless People's Treatment Unit, is a trauma in their history, usually during childhood. UP THE STAIRS from the old courtyard at 34 Yefet in Jaffa, in an office suite with a high ceiling and antique, ornate floor tiles, a dirty, shabbily dressed man and woman are sitting on one of the lobby couches, talking and laughing in Russian. Their faces have a kind of baked-in dirty look. On the other couch, a man is concentrating on a Sudoku game. About 60, neatly-dressed, clean-shaven, his glasses secured by a necklace, he doesn't look at the two Russians, as if he doesn't want to be associated with them. By his appearance and behavior, I can't tell if he's a client here or not. A tall man walks out of one of the offices and the Russian on the couch calls to him, in Hebrew, "Did you get a check?" "Yeah, a million dollars in Monopoly money," the tall man laughs. On the walls are drawings and paintings by some of the homeless people who've passed through. Most of the art is either pastoral fantasies or realistic depictions of people on the street. The most striking by far is a swirling, nightmarish vision of black birds flying through black clouds, a bench, a skull and, in the distance, a bright, colorful residential neighborhood where children are playing. The painter, an alcoholic Russian immigrant named Alex, died some years ago at 40 or thereabouts. The TV is tuned to a talk show, but only the security guard is watching. It's around noon on a bright autumn day, but the gloom and boredom in the lobby is pretty thick. Suddenly the neatly-dressed man stretches, yawns and groans loudly, getting everyone's attention. "How long?" he says to no one. "I've been here since the morning." "Patience," the security guard tells him. Soon the intake worker comes out of her office and motions to him to come in. "No! I want to see her!" he shouts with rage, pointing to Cohen's corner office. "Stop yelling, Amir," the tall man tells him. "You shut up! You shut up!" Amir shouts at the tall man, advancing on him, and in a moment they're wrestling and swinging at each other, and all the social workers and clients rush out of the offices into the lobby. The old security guard tries to subdue Amir, but he's too strong and breaks loose. Eli Mor, one of the social workers, grabs him, but Amir head-butts him, after which the security guard and a couple of homeless men overpower Amir, until he runs out of strength and stops struggling. "This isn't prison, you don't act like that here," a social worker tells him as another one calls the police. "I sleep in the street, what do I care. Call the police, put me in jail," he moans in a mixture of rage, anguish and frustration. He hollers curses at Cohen, who is standing at the other end of the lobby. Accusing her of getting him thrown out of his home, he looks at her evenly and says, "I'll cut you to pieces. I know where you live. I'll have the last word." "He's garbage! He's garbage!" yells Sasha, a client of Mor's who smells of whiskey and is standing on one of the couches, being held back from going at Amir. Soon two policemen come and take Amir to the station at Abu Kabir. Cohen, Mor and the intake worker, Pnina Soybel, go to the station to file a criminal complaint against him. "Believe me, that was rare," Cohen tells me. Driving the social workers to the station, a municipal security officer says the last time a serious fight broke out between clients at 34 Yefet was "three or four years ago. Remember when Viktor got punched in the face by Boris? Viktor came out of it lucky because Boris was a kickboxing champion back in Russia." IN THE corridor of the police station, Amir, escorted by two police officers, sees Cohen and shouts curses at her again. He was her client for four years. He was recently released from prison after serving time for assault and battery, and now, after head-butting Mor and threatening to cut Cohen to pieces, chances are he's going back. Cohen, however, insists he belongs in a mental hospital. The first trauma in Amir's life came when he was five or six, when an oil lamp accidentally fell on him, leaving him deaf in one ear and scarred over much of his body, a source of pain and shame during his boyhood. His second trauma came when he was eight and his father pulled him out of school to pick cotton and other crops for as long as 10 hours a day to help feed their large family. "Amir is always looking for a book to read, he talks about how he wishes he could have stayed in school," says Cohen. In a case report on Amir last year, she wrote: "At 12 he rebelled against his father and started running around with his friends and smoking hashish. At 22 he was using morphine, and at 30, heroin." Twenty years after that, Amir was living on the streets, half out of his mind, when his sister brought him to the Jaffa office for help. Cohen steered him into a rented apartment, he went on methadone and regained his lucidity. "[But] he never stopped complaining that I was to blame for the condition he was in, and that he had been better off before. It seemed that the more his situation improved, the more he found lacking in it," she wrote, noting that she'd had to cut some of their sessions short when he would scream accusations at her. Amir is now 56 or 57. Literally and figuratively, his boyhood scars never left him. In the case of Sasha, the drunk who was standing on the couch and yelling at Amir, there was a different set of childhood traumas, says Eli Mor, who's been treating him for five years. Sasha grew up in Ukraine with no father, and with a mother who slept with different men all the time and who sent him to an orphanage when he was 13. He grew into an alcoholic, violent man. Soon after immigrating to Israel, his wife left him and took their children, and Sasha ended up in the street for two years - drinking, sleeping in Hakovshim Park behind the Carmel Market, or outside the nearby Etzel Museum, or in abandoned buildings. He got by on the few shekels he made hauling produce at the market. That was five years ago. Now he's living in a rented apartment, getting disability payments and a rent subsidy, and though he suffers from various illnesses, he works at all the menial jobs he can handle. He married again and had a child with a gentile woman who was deported back to Russia after her tourist visa ran out, but he's working to bring them over to live with him. "He'll do it," Mor believes. Sasha, 56, still drinks, but much less than before, often going months without getting drunk. That day in the office he looked like an overage heavy metal rocker in shoulder-length gray hair, studded vest and jeans. The turning point in his rehabilitation, says Mor, came when he went on 100% disability and thereafter had a dependable income. For people on the street or just getting off, all that's important are the basics of survival - which for them mean alcohol or drugs, physical security and a little food. "Our initial approach to them is instrumental," says Cohen. Now that Sasha doesn't have to worry about where his next meal or drink is coming from, he is left to look at himself in the mirror, which is hard and painful. "Because of his upbringing, his monster of a mother, he has no self-esteem. He describes himself as 'garbage,'" says Mor. Unable to stand up for himself, he allows his various employers to cheat him, which makes him furious, but he's too passive to let it out - except when he's drunk. So at the slightest disturbance, he turns to vodka. "Alcohol frees him," says Mor. "I think he would go insane without it." It was alcohol that freed Sasha to shout "garbage" at Amir, instead of shouting it silently at himself as he does when sober. Still, his binges are now periodic instead of continuous, and Sasha is a functional person a great majority of the time. Mor is confident he won't slip back to the streets because in spite of the emotional lows, "he doesn't want to lose what he's got." The social worker thinks his client can have yet a better life than he has now. "The challenge is for him to learn to accept himself - with all the failures, with all the things he doesn't have," says Mor. "Sasha is a split personality - one person when he's sober, another when he's drunk. I want those two sides to be, if not in harmony, then at least in negotiation. Then he won't be in such pain anymore." THE VAN cruising Tel Aviv at night stops on Dizengoff. An old, gray-bearded, one-legged man is lying on the sidewalk, looking like a pile of trash, as crowds of young people walk by. Stretched out on a sheet of cardboard, he has his begging cup and a cellphone next to him. (Many homeless people who work from time to time, or beg, or get welfare have cellphones, which can be bought for a couple of hundred shekels.) Even-Chen exchanges a few words with the old man, but this fellow is not a candidate for rehab. "He makes pretty good money begging," says the field worker, noting that he lives in Netanya, and is driven, possibly by family members, to Bnei Brak or Tel Aviv every day to beg, then driven back to Netanya to sleep. "I know a drug addict who makes NIS 600 a day begging," he notes. The van, driven by a city inspector, pulls onto the traffic island underneath Dizengoff Circle, where someone has set up his mattress for the night. Even-Chen goes up to him, gives him a cigarette, asks how it's going and won't he come into the office and let them help him get off booze and off the street? "I tried, and tried, and tried," says the homeless man, who looks about 30 and seems pretty strong and alert. "Try again," says the field worker, leaving his card and heading back to the van. "I stay on them," says Even-Chen. "I keep going back, keep working on them and sooner or later they usually come in for help. But I'm not greedy. 'If you save one soul, it's as if you've saved an entire world.'" As a rule, homeless people fall to the streets from a modest height; most have very spotty employment histories at best. But there are exceptions. "We had an IDF colonel, we found him living in Meir Park one night a few years ago," says Edna Rafael, a social worker at the Jaffa office. He'd been married with children, but witnessing his soldiers getting killed in Gaza left him severely traumatized. "He was depressed, confused. He wouldn't agree to see his family because he was ashamed of what he'd become," she says. Today he is living in a respectable apartment on a generous IDF disability pension, which his two sons, now both IDF officers, persuaded him to apply for. "He's seeing an IDF psychiatrist. He's in better shape than he was before," says the social worker. There was an immigrant who'd been a professor of Chinese in the former Soviet Union, but he couldn't pay rent on the low-wage work he got here, and he had no family in Israel and he ended up on the street. "He always talked about the person he used to be," recalls Rafael. After coming into the Jaffa office, the ex-professor was housed for two years at Gagon, the local homeless men's shelter set up by attorney Gilad Harish, who also founded Tel Aviv's Lasova restaurant for the hungry. The ex-professor eventually left treatment and the office lost track of him, but, Rafael says, "If he was homeless now, we would know." There was an alcoholic student who'd completed medical school in the former Soviet Union, then, after immigrating, failed the qualifying exam twice and ended up sleeping rough outside the Dolphinarium. "We sent him to a rehab center, and he lived at Gagon for awhile, then he met a woman and I hear they got married and moved to another city," says the social worker. There was an Iranian immigrant left badly traumatized by the months of beatings he'd endured in an Iranian prison about a decade ago. "They arrested him after they found out he planned to move to Israel, and only released him after he promised not to. But after his release, he found his way over here," says Rafael, herself of Iranian background. The man's interrogators beat him on his genitals so badly that he lost a testicle. In Israel, he spent several years living on the streets in South Tel Aviv until his sister contacted the Jaffa office to help him. Rafael treated him for six years. "He would never come here, I always went out to see him," she says, noting that she finally "connected" with him when she they began singing songs together in Farsi. Later he rented an apartment, received disability payments and, at Rafael's initiative, gained official recognition as a Prisoner of Zion, which brought him additional payments. Now in his mid-30s, he may be better off than he was before he got help, but he is not well, not by any means the man he was before prison. "His parents moved here from Iran a year ago, but he won't see them, he's too angry at them," says the social worker. And even though he has an apartment, he still lives a transient life. THE VAN is now driving toward Haifa Road in expensive North Tel Aviv, approaching a covered bus stop. "There he is! Come to me, sweetheart," says Even-Chen, seeing a man sleeping on the bench under a blanket. Looking about 60, Yossi has the sharp features, high forehead and swept back silver hair of a classical stage actor. "I've come out here about eight times looking for him," says the field worker. Yossi tells Even-Chen he's been living on the street for about a year. "I had money, NIS 20,000 in the bank, you can check. I was living with my brother and he died, and I lost the apartment. At the end of my life, this happens to me," he says, his eyes welling up. For a homeless man Yossi looks rumpled but in pretty good shape. He's clean-shaven and speaks coherently. He isn't an alcoholic or drug addict, but has a long history of severe emotional problems, and hasn't worked in many years. Even-Chen tells him about the Jaffa office and Gagon, and Yossi promises to come in. "Come in tomorrow," the field worker urges him, and Yossi, for whatever it's worth, nods his head obediently in agreement. The following morning at 7:30, on a side street near the beach where Tel Aviv becomes Jaffa, a man is sweeping soapy water out the front door of Gagon I, the temporary shelter for homeless alcoholics and drug addicts. Gagon II, for homeless men who are "clean," is near Allenby. Each shelter houses some 50 men. Gagon III, for homeless women, is being readied for opening. A few men are standing in front of Gagon I, smoking, drinking coffee and eating pastries. The lobby has old couches covered with fabric, a computer, an aquarium and bookshelves. Inside are bedrooms lined with triple-tier metal bunk beds hung with the residents' laundry. After morning coffee, they clear out for the day, passing the time at work, looking for work, applying for additional benefits or hanging out on the streets drinking, getting high or trying to stay clean. They return to Gagon for dinner and bed. Nikolai, who's been here for a month and off vodka for a week, spends his time inside Gagon as a house manager of sorts. "If I go out, I see my friends, somebody has vodka and it's a balagan. If I don't go out, I stay busy washing dishes, doing little things, and I forget about drinking," he says. At 44, his front teeth are missing and he hasn't shaved in a few days, but after a week of sobriety, he sounds steady. A veteran immigrant from Russia, Nikolai says he was a hard-working man with a wife and daughter until his wife divorced him some years ago. "I gave her the apartment, the car, all I took was my clothes," he says. Living with his mother, he began hanging out with other Russian men at loose ends, drinking more and more, losing one job after another, until he was sleeping on benches and in bomb shelters north of Haifa. Early this year he headed down to Tel Aviv, where he slept in Hakovshim Park. Now, a week off the vodka, he's optimistic. "I want to find an apartment, smooth things out with my daughter, find a job and start a new life," he says. But he's gotten sober before since his divorce, and he always fell back into the bottle. "Did your father drink?" asks Osnat Cohen from the Jaffa office, here on one of her frequent stops. "I didn't know my father, I didn't live with him," Nikolai replies. Cohen nods her head; the missing or abusive father is a recurring character in the lives of homeless men. Nikolai may seem strong and confident now, she says, and he may stay sober for some time, but the real test will come when he's alone in a rented apartment and something - anything - upsets him. "These people can't deal with the slightest frustration, a word from a neighbor can set them off. They're on top of the world and then boom, in an instant they fall to the bottom. There's no in-between," she says, sounding frustrated herself. Not many residents at Gagon are at once lucid, fluent in Hebrew and willing to be interviewed. Nikolai was one; the other man Cohen referred me to was Ran. "He isn't representative of our clients, though," she points out. He isn't at all. Ran, 51, has a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master's degree in computer science from the Hebrew University - this is confirmed by Cohen - and he sounds it. "My personality disorder is very much like bipolar affective disorder, what used to be called manic depression," he says. "The behaviorist view is that it stems from parental behavior; the more modern view is that it's genetic. I lean more toward the behaviorist view." His parents dead, Ran looks heavenward and, with an ironic expression that radiates self-pity, says, "Thank you mother, thank you father, for this gift." Sitting in an empty social worker's office at 34 Yefet, Ran, a big man with a high-pitched voice in wire-rim glasses, T-shirt and sandals, says he's the only "clean" resident there, having finagled his way in two years ago. He'd love to leave, he says, but can't afford housing above the level of a one-room slum apartment around the Central Bus Station - a neighborhood "that makes Harlem look like Herzliya Pituah." He spends his days looking for work - going to the government Employment Office, to manpower agencies, checking the Internet and newspaper ads. But because of his age, his master's degree and many years' experience as a hospital nurse, he says he nearly always gets turned down. "I'm overqualified for minimum wage work. I'm overqualified to be homeless," he shrugs. Before his divorce, when he was working steadily, Ran lived in a house with a garden in a pretty little town. Today his dream is to make enough money to rent a three-room apartment so his two daughters can stay over on weekends. But the chances of this are "nil," he says, unless he hits the lottery. So what motivates him to spend day after day walking around and waiting in offices in a generally futile search for work? "If I don't do that, what will I do? Sit around and sink deeper in my misery?" IT IS TWO days after the night we rode in the van with Even-Chen, tracking down homeless people. This morning the field worker is sitting in the lobby of 34 Yefet. Sitting next to him is Yossi, the elderly man he found sleeping on a Haifa Road bus bench. "He came in yesterday, like he promised," says Even-Chen. Yossi looks about the same as he did two nights before, but that wasn't too bad. He's sleeping in a hostel now, and is a client of the Homeless People's Treatment Unit. "I feel better," he says. "I get to talk to people. It's better than I thought it would be." The security guard, Yitzhak Ben-Ezra, 71, who's been working here for 12 years, comes up to Yossi and asks, "Do you want a cup of tea?" Even-Chen has saved another soul. "We're going to take care of him now," he says. Homelessness has no simple explanation. While every homeless person may have gone through a trauma, not many people who've been traumatized end up homeless. While most people living on the streets may have had missing or abusive parents, very few orphans or abused children wind up on the streets. "I know hundreds of drug addicts who aren't homeless. Why didn't it happen to them, yet it did happen to other drug addicts?" says Rafael, who's been a social worker at the Jaffa office since it opened in 1991. She suggests that it takes more than one "marker" to make a homeless person; it usually takes a combination of childhood trauma; parental absence, neglect or abusiveness that leaves the child with an ingrained lack of self-confidence; and, last but not least, poverty. If there are an estimated 3,000 homeless people in Israel, there's no way of knowing how many Israelis have the personal history, psychological condition and addiction that might have driven them to the streets if they didn't have the money, or their families didn't have the money, to keep them housed or decently institutionalized. As for the less fortunate, Rafael says, "Despite what some people think, nobody really chooses to be homeless. A person becomes homeless because the way it feels to him, he has no choice." n