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Largely Russian, Young and Educated, Israel’s Homeless Coping with Street Life

August 10, 2004
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As evening falls on Tel Aviv, the city vibrates with an energy unlike anywhere else in Israel. The beach-front promenade is abuzz with pedestrians of all ages, both Tel Aviv locals and those who’ve traveled here to bask in the fresh sea breeze and the symphony of lights coming off the cars, street lamps, restaurants, cafes, pizzerias and ice cream parlors dotting this cosmopolitan hub.

But nestled among the blissful crowd, amid the eating, drinking and general merriment, is a group that often goes ignored: Israel’s homeless.

Welfare authorities have registered some 1,200 homeless in Israel, but there are no hard numbers. Some estimates run as high as 10,000 Israelis living without homes.

Half of the 1,200 live in Tel Aviv, a quarter in Jerusalem and the remainder scattered throughout the country, according to welfare authorities.

Though the exact numbers are fuzzy, one thing is clear: Younger and younger people are becoming! homeless.

A year ago, a family crisis forced Miri Hatuel, 18, onto the streets. After several days wandering, sleeping on the streets and the beach, she found shelter at south Tel Aviv’s Shanti House, a youth shelter just minutes from the pedestrian mall by the beach.

“Never in my life would I have dreamed that I would not be wanted at home,” says Hatuel, who declined to elaborate on the nature of the crisis that forced her into the streets. “After I left home, I sometimes had suicidal thoughts, asking myself, ‘Why was I brought to the world if my family didn’t want me?’ “

Though still a teenager, Hatuel radiates maturity and self-confidence.

“Why did it happen to me?” she wonders aloud. “I don’t know. It just happened, just as a girl becomes a prostitute or turns into a famous model overnight.”

During her year at Shanti House, Miri has completed her high-school studies and now works as a waitress and an apprentice to a fashion designer. She will begin her ! compulsory military service shortly.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, some 80 percent of Israel’s homeless are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. According to the figures, most have at least 10 years of schooling under their belts.

Many of them are alcoholics, an affliction that is more prevalent than it was 10 to 15 years ago.

Among the homeless are hundreds of runaways and other youngsters who have left youth dormitories for summer vacation, but have nowhere to go.

One night last week, thousands of people streaming along the beach promenade ignored a young, bearded man lying on the sidewalk, asleep — or drunk or on drugs. His head rested on his outstretched arm and his hand was open, still begging. Every now and then someone stopped to drop a coin into a small cardboard box.

During the summer, the ranks of Tel Aviv homeless grow. They come from all over the country to try their luck in the big city, seeking company, booze and drugs.

“Israeli homeless are different than homel! ess in other countries, in that by and large they are not mentally affected,” says Dr. Avi Uri of the Golden Tower rehabilitation hospital in Bat Yam. “Their behavior is usually considered normal.”

Uri has treated several homeless who were heavy drinkers. During their hospitalizations they gave up alcohol altogether, he said, but they returned to the bottle as soon as they were released.

However, Uri noted, few of Israel’s homeless go hungry. If they want food, he says, they can go to restaurants where someone often will help them out. Some live on social security and some have bank accounts.

And some, like Nir Shaul, even own mobile phones — though budget concerns allow him only to receive calls, a service that is free of charge in Israel.

Shaul, 51, is the exact opposite of common stereotypes about the homeless: He is neatly dressed and the beard on his face is hardly a day old. Yet he is never sure where he will spend the next night.

Until six months a! go, he says, he never would have dreamed that he might find himself li ving on the street. But last February, he discovered “within a matter of 24 seconds” just how easy it is to lose everything.

Until the death of his wife Nicole nine years ago, Shaul, a member of the charedi community in Bnei Brak, somehow made do.

“We adjusted to the culture of poverty in the charedi community,” he says. “We managed.”

He took every possible job, from repairing tefillin to washing dishes in restaurants. When Nicole died, he was left with their six children, until local welfare services sent them to live with foster families.

When Shaul failed to make mortgage payments on his apartment, the bank took it over. He worked at a local grocery shop, where he was given a small room to live. But last February he was fired and found himself on the street.

Shaul says the charedi community turned its back on him when he began to criticize the charedi lifestyle, and he moved to the other end of the Israeli social spectrum, Dizengoff Square, the heart of ! secular Tel Aviv — though he retains some religious practices.

This area has been his home for the past six months, during which he has spent nights in buildings under construction, on street benches and in a local synagogue where he sneaks in after evening prayers.

Shaul does not pity himself. If he has made mistakes, he says, chief among them may have been abiding by the charedi lifestyle, which he says “cultivates poverty” by encouraging large families and favoring Torah studies over work.

Shaul has no accounts to settle with God.

“I cannot understand him, but who can?” he muses.

Shaul bathes daily at a nearby mikvah, washes his clothes regularly at the laundromat and hopes the municipality soon will find him some sort of temporary housing.

Israel’s homeless can be seen everywhere — covered with disintegrating blankets on the steps of synagogues, asleep on benches in public gardens, living in tunnels or panhandling on city sidewalks.

The Tel A! viv city department that cares for street dweller strives to keep trac k of the homeless, offering them medical care, shelter and — for those fit to cope with the rigors of work — jobs.

“However, the problem is not just economic,” says Asnat Cohen, director of the municipality’s street dwellers department. “Often the problem lies in their mind: Often they adopt not only a homeless way of life but a homeless state of mind.”

Asked about the dangers of slipping into such a frame of mind, Shaul said: “Yes, I am aware of the danger and I am fighting against it.”

As evening falls and he watches the summer evening crowd, Shaul notes that last night the sun set later, and that tomorrow the day will be slightly shorter. Soon it will be winter.

“I really don’t want to spend another winter in the street,” he says.

He then entered a sidewalk kiosk, bought a cigarette for one shekel — “I can’t afford the whole pack,” he says — and mingled with the crowd.

By midnight, he would try and sneak into the nearby synagogue. If he couldn’! t, he’d spend another night on a bench.

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