The street is their living room

The Tel Aviv Municipality must find permanent solutions to meet the needs of the homeless.

poverty homeless dirty 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
poverty homeless dirty 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘Victoria? How are you?” Asnat Cohen- Touboul yells from the open car window.
A man and a woman look up from a bench. Both are dressed in warm sweaters, open jackets on top.
Stragglers from the morning work crowd make their way down the sidewalk to bus stops, offices and buildings where they will spend their next few hours. But for Victoria and David, the man at her side, there is no clear answer as to where they will spend theirs.
Probably on the same bench they have been sitting on for the past few hours, in front of the same bank they like to sit in front of every few days.
“Come here, Victoria, come closer, I know you don’t see well,” Cohen- Touboul says.
Victoria walks unsteadily toward the curb, a woman supports her arm. Years of alcohol abuse have taken their toll.
David makes it to the car window first.
Victoria hits him half-jokingly, half-seriously.
“Victoria, don’t fight,” Cohen- Touboul says. Victoria laughs and David interjects, “She tries to hit me, I just move back.” Now everybody laughs.
“Listen, we want to rent an apartment together,” David announces as he leans in the car window.
“We want one room for him and one room for me,” Victoria says matter-of-factly.
“Come with us to the office now,” Cohen-Touboul replies. David promises they will make it in later in the day.
“You always say you’ll come to us, David, and you never do.”
Victoria and David are two of nearly 550 people living on the streets of Tel Aviv who have case files with the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality’s Unit for the Treatment of the Homeless. This is in addition to 80 or 90 known people on the streets who have refused treatment but are being monitored by the unit’s social workers.
Cohen-Touboul is a social worker and clinical criminologist, and the manager of the small team of outreach workers made up of four additional social workers and several support workers. She and her team go on daily street patrols based on complaints of panhandling and loitering that members of the public call in to the municipal operator.
“Can you reach Naty and ask her if she’s in the unit?” Cohen-Touboul asks Ze’ev Shveidel, her patrol partner, himself a social worker and an applied criminologist. “I want her to go through the operator calls.”
They have been cruising around a particular address on Hayarkon Street, after someone called in and complained about a person with cardboard boxes sleeping in front of their building.
But no one is there.
“They are going now to look for their fix,” Cohen-Touboul explains. “These people are so heavily addicted that it takes time for them to realize the danger they are in. There are situations where they don’t want to talk at all.”
Outreach is key in implementing treatment, according to Yoav Ben-Artzi.
He is the municipality’s manager of treatment for drug addicts, alcoholics and the homeless and rehabilitation of released convicts, which falls under the broader umbrella of the city’s Social Services Authority. The Unit for the Treatment of the Homeless is part of his responsibility.
“Outreach is our main tool,” Ben- Artzi says. “Part of our daily patrol goal is to follow up with subjects who are in bad shape physically but who do not want to go into treatment, to see if maybe this time they will agree.”
But outreach is not all treatment- or survival-oriented, Cohen-Touboul says.
An important aspect is letting people know someone cares about them.
“Part of our work is to see who is where and in what situation, but also to ask, ‘How are you?’ Small talk is very important,” she explains. “Obviously people need attention.”
There is also the issue of terminology, Ben-Artzi says.
“‘Homeless’ is someone without a home, and ‘dayar rehov’ is someone who lives on the streets. The more correct term is dayar rehov.”
Ben-Artzi explains that while a person who walks down the streets of Tel Aviv may get the impression that there are many homeless, not all of them are truly without a home.
“Some may use drugs, or may go to the central bus station to buy or sell, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a home to go to. They may be there for a few days and then they go home.”
And many of those actually living on the city’s streets are there by choice.
“Here you see Moshe with the green pants,” Cohen-Touboul says, pointing to a man sitting on the sidewalk. “He has been on the streets for several years, and he doesn’t want any assistance.
These are people who live the street life. The way to bring them in is to let them get used to you.”
Cohen-Touboul breaks the unit’s work with its subjects into three main categories: those who are in a chronic state of crisis and treat the streets as their home; those who have been placed in temporary housing or receive rental assistance for an apartment and who are in the treatment process; and those who are returning to society.
Assistance to those living on the street comes in several forms, among them housing in temporary shelters.
Called gagonim, they are managed by Lasova, a non-profit organization, which also counts Tel Aviv’s Lasova soup kitchen among its many projects.
“We provide people with shelter,” Lasova founder Gilad Harish says.
“The municipality provides them with social services.”
The municipality also owns the buildings in which the gagonim are located.
According to Harish, the first gagon was established in 1986. “It was a very small project which cost approximately $500 per month. We never thought it would grow like this.”
But the wave of Russian immigration in the early ’90s changed things – suddenly the need for assistance was great, and Lasova was integrated into the municipal action-plan. Today, the city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa has three Lasova gagonim – one for male addicts, one for other men, and one for women.
A group of men is gathered in the living area of the gagon for addicts on Elizabeth Bergner Street. They sit in the dark on the scattered couches and watch a movie in Russian on a large-screen TV, awaiting the dinner hour. Others mill about their sleeping quarters. The big front door opens into the yard.
It is a chilly evening, a fact that is not lost upon Michael, a mustached, 60- year-old American and a resident of the gagon. He is dressed in thick, gray corduroy pants and a sweater with a Nordic print.
“I didn’t expect to be here,” he says.
Well spoken, he peppers his speech with colorful stories – his father worked in the Venezuelan oil fields and was once the featherweight boxing champion of Europe; he himself grew up in Florida, studied music in college, and was once invited to play keyboard with the band Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“I wasn’t going to go onstage with them,” he laughs. “I saw one of them take a bottle of rye and go ‘funk’ [he feigns smashing a bottle] on the pianist’s head.”
In Israel since 1994, Michael says he lost his apartment unexpectedly, during a period when he had stopped working because he was feeling run down – something he later learned was due to complications of diabetes.
“My plan is to get well and find an apartment and a job and get out of here,” Michael says.
But things haven’t been easy. Everyone else speaks Russian, and Michael doesn’t.
His feet are covered in sores and he has been drinking again, though he insists that is not really a problem.
“Before I came here, I didn’t drink for four months,” he says. “Since I came here and associated with people, it has been harder not to drink. But I don’t think drinking 100 milliliters makes me [an] alcoholic.”
Andrei Bozhko, a rehabilitative criminologist and manager of the Bergner Street gagon, says that while it is not ideal to put people who are clean into shelters housing those who are dealing with substance-abuse issues, sometimes they are left with few options.
“There is a lack of space in the shelter for normative males,” he says. “Of course, when someone comes and they are not an addict, I try to put him in the gagon for normative males, but there we have 14 beds, and here we have 44. In the winter we can’t always find the space.”
If the weather got really bad, he says, they would put people on the couches before they would turn them away.
Tamar Klein agrees. She is a social worker and the manager of the 20-bed women’s gagon on Tchelenov Street.
“We currently have seven empty beds, but there is good chance they will fill up soon because winter is coming.”
She says they would probably find a way to get 25 women in if they had to, rather than turning anyone away.
As with the men’s shelters, women arrive here in several ways – on their own, via referral of a social worker, or sometimes by way of the police or hospital.
“They all have harsh backgrounds, very harsh,” Klein says, citing violence in the family as another shared denominator. As with the men’s shelters, there are house rules, and a house mother to oversee them – no drugs, alcohol, smoking or violence on the premises; no working in prostitution; lights out at certain hours; assigned cleaning shifts; hours of the day when residents must be outside the house taking care of personal matters; meetings with social workers; doctor’s appointments; some are required to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
Breaking a house rule results in punishment, which can range from being denied certain privileges to not being allowed to come back into the house for two days, to being expelled for good.
The women have begun trickling back in. A couple are situated on a large couch in the sunny living area. A few are in their rooms. It is almost 3 p.m., the hour at which they are supposed to return for the day.
“One of the worst punishments we can give them here is no television.”
Klein says.
As she says this, voices rise. One resident wants a Russian show, another wants Viva.
“Girls, if you argue, I will lock the TV on the Hebrew channel,” Klein tells them. A woman with a Russian accent protests loudly. Another woman looks on stoically. In the end, the Hebrew channel is locked on for the day.
“We exercise a lot of compassion here,” Klein says regarding the decisions the gagon staff makes. “These are people who have gotten to the edge of the edge.
If they fall, we give them another chance, and if they fall again, another, again and again until you just can’t anymore.”
Klein describes the job of gagon manager as being a case manager: “I accept the resident, I intake her, I contact her social worker, I send her to treatment.”
The gagon staff sees to the residents’ most immediate needs – food, shelter, clothing via Lasova’s Egged Beged clothing donation program. They try to insert little bits of culture – an art class, a poem read at the end of a group meeting. In the bigger picture, the municipality remains responsible for the actual treatment process.
This process includes ensuring that those who have case files with the municipality Unit for the Treatment of the Homeless receive all their rights – which, according to Ben-Artzi, for those who qualify, can include up to NIS 1,170 in rental assistance from the Construction and Housing Ministry, and a guaranteed minimum income of NIS 1,200 from the National Insurance Institute.
Members of the Unit for the Treatment of the Homeless assist subjects in their application processes.
This can range from helping them complete paperwork to actually going with them to the various government offices. The municipality also provides emergency services such as getting people admitted into and actually taking them to rehabilitation programs, and distributing blankets and tea on cold winter nights. Seventy-five percent of the unit’s budget is funded by the Welfare and Social Services Ministry; the other 25% is funded by the municipality itself.
Even with all these efforts, there is still something lacking, according to Harish.
“There needs to be an established place for people chronically living on the streets – those who come for a week and then leave, and then come for a month and then leave. They are permanently homeless people,” he says.
“We offer temporary shelter – they need a permanent place. And it needs to be taken care of in a central way, so that the government manages the treatment, and not the municipalities.”
Cohen-Touboul is of similar opinion.
“The best thing that can happen for those living on the streets is for the country to establish sheltered housing,” she says. “The issue isn’t just financial – even when you give them an apartment, you need to teach them how to manage their lives in an apartment.
They need a place where they will be watched over, taught and protected – they are a weaker population.”
When asked, she says that while the implementation of “wet” shelters (shelters that accept addicts, as long as they do not use substances on the premises) have helped reduce the numbers of deaths on the street, she still estimates some 20 people die outdoors in Tel Aviv each year. She fears Victoria might become one of them.
“Tell her I’m alive, tell her I’m surviving,” Victoria yells to Cohen-Touboul as the car pulls away from the sidewalk.
She wants her to pass this message on to her regular social worker. Victoria’s liver is failing, something the unit’s staff knows from her medical checkups after one of her stays in rehab.
“I’m sure somewhere inside of her she realizes she won’t live a long life, and apparently she has accepted it in her own way,” Cohen-Touboul says sadly.
The car is already on Ibn Gvirol Street, far away from the reality of Victoria. But Cohen-Touboul is still thinking about her.
“That’s an extreme example of someone who you see is close to death. She barely walks, she’s robotic. Victoria knows her liver is done and yet she’s completely flowering, glowing and happy to see us,” she says. “It’s as if she’s entertaining us in her living room. It’s a picture worth 1,000 words... that’s Victoria, a picture worth 1,000 words....”
The names of some subjects have been changed to protect their identities.