Frigid Weather Claims a Life, Focuses Attention on Homeless

With frigid weather here claiming the life of at least one homeless person over the weekend, attention has once again focused on the plight of the homeless in Israel.

As temperatures plunged and snow, hail and rain fell around the country, the body of a homeless man was found in the backyard of an apartment building in Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv.

Police believed the man, whose name was not released, died of exposure.

Sarah Ashkenazi, the official in charge of homelessness at the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, said an estimated 900 people are homeless in Israel.

She told Army Radio that local authorities are responsible for finding shelter for homeless people in their local communities during the harsh winter months.

She said the homeless population is composed primarily of the mentally ill, but that it also includes immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have encountered difficulties with absorption into Israeli society.

Referring to the mentally ill segment of the homeless population, Ashkenazi said the Basic Law for an individual’s right to liberty prevents the government from taking people off the street against their will.

“We have no law to force them to receive treatment,” Ashkenazi told Army Radio. “We can’t force them off the street.”

Ashkenazi said her ministry has set up six centers for the homeless in cities throughout the country.

The weekend’s unusual winter weather affected communities throughout Israel.

Snow fell Saturday on the Golan Heights, Mount Hermon and in the West Bank town of Hebron, while the rest of the country experienced hail, heavy rain and thunderstorms, which were often accompanied by strong gusts of wind.

Flooding was reported in several places, especially in the Negev and Arava, where several roads were closed.

In Jerusalem, snow fell briefly on Saturday, but did not accumulate. Just the same, Jerusalem’s municipal officials warned residents to avoid driving Sunday morning because of subzero temperatures that were expected to freeze over wet roads.

The cold weather even took a toll on some who were not homeless.

A 60-year-old man from Ramla died of suffocation as a result of a leak in a gas heater. And in Jerusalem, four people wee injured, two seriously, by fires caused by electric heaters.

In neighboring Jordan, heavy snow was also reported. According to Israel Television, a group of some 50 Israeli tourists were stranded at their hotel near the tourist site of Petra because of snow accumulations that were as much as 3 feet high.

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