For Israel’s homeless, shelters become a haven from pandemic

Experts say those living on the streets are more vulnerable to COVID-19; activists and government officials step up assistance

A man wearing a face mask for fear of the coronavirus, walks past a homeless person near a closed shopping mall  in Jerusalem on March 23, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
A man wearing a face mask for fear of the coronavirus, walks past a homeless person near a closed shopping mall in Jerusalem on March 23, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A month ago, Ayal Levi was at rock bottom. The 57-year old Tel Aviv native was struggling with mental health issues and living on the streets when he was offered a bed at a local homeless shelter operated by the Lasova nonprofit organization.

Initially, the shelter would send its residents out during the day, then let them back in the evenings. But since the beginning of the government’s social distancing initiatives meant to halt the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak, they have been staying inside 24 hours a day.

“I used to go to the park or all sorts of places,” Levi recalled. “That was before the coronavirus. Now we stay inside all day. We don’t go outside. We have games and a TV.”

Homeless people like Levi may be at increased risk of contracting the novel coronavirus, according to health officials, a realization that has prompted efforts by both government bodies and charitable organizations to protect them as their more fortunate counterparts shelter at home.

Illustrative image of a homeless man sleeping in downtown Jerusalem, December 12, 2014. (Maxim Dinshtein/ Flash90)

People living on the streets “are a vulnerable group because they are not being taken care of in regular times and are now also falling between the cracks,” Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, the director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told The Times of Israel on Thursday.

Aside from the homeless, others who frequent the streets, such as prostitutes, are also “very threatened” and require active intervention by the state welfare system. Luckily, Davidovitch said, there has been increased interest in the problem from government officials in recent days.

“There is a new task force from the Health Ministry that is starting [operations] today to think about how to work with these populations and, of course, the networks that are working with these communities in regular times are trying to collaborate and develop a plan,” he said, adding that he understood that “people without citizenship will now be given testing and treatment regardless of their insurance status.”

Asked how it planned to protect Israel’s homeless during the current outbreak, the Health Ministry declined to comment, stating that their care was the “responsibility of the welfare office and local authorities” with which it was cooperating.

According to Maha Matar, who oversees services for people living on the street for the Social Services Ministry, there are around 1,900 “street dwellers” in Israel currently receiving some sort of help from the ministry and another 400 or so who do not, and attempt to avoid government social workers.

Magen David Adom ambulance workers wearing protective clothing as a preventive measure against the coronavirus bring a woman suspected having the coronavirus to the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, March 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The ministry differentiates between “street dwellers” and homeless people, which it says are the responsibility of the Housing Ministry.

These numbers stand in stark contrast to those of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which has previously defined 25,000 people as homeless and alleged that social services are only helping around 10 percent of the total number of homeless people in the country.

For people to be defined as homeless under Social Services Ministry criteria, they must be above 18 years of age and live on the streets, and either be cut off from their families, be in an unstable physical or mental state, have a history of mental or physical illness, be on drugs, be unable to function in most areas of their lives, have a history of violence, or be unable to fight for better conditions.

Under normal conditions, the Social Services Ministry directs its efforts to locating those living on the streets and convincing them to join their programs. However, it does not appear that the ministry is currently conducting its usual outreach since the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Shelters to quarantines

In recent weeks, all ministry shelters have been equipped with facilities to enable residents to be easily quarantined if medically necessary, a sort of “emergency room to which the patients first come and stay in isolation until the period [of isolation] ends.”

New arrivals at shelters are immediately placed in isolation in order to protect the other residents because they “are characterized as a vulnerable population, with most of them having some background or other medical complications,” the ministry said.

In Tel Aviv, which hosts the largest concentration of homeless people in Israel, the municipality’s street residents team, comprising nine social workers and two fieldworkers, is operating “at full capacity,” city hall said in a statement.

The unit conducts “proactive tours” in places such as the Central Bus Station, giving out information on the pandemic and offering vulnerable people a place to sleep in one of the city’s shelters. There are currently three such establishments and the opening of a fourth is under consideration, the city said.

Homeless men sleep outside in Levinsky Park, Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Tamir Kalifa)
Homeless men sleep outside in Levinsky Park, Tel Aviv in 2012. (photo credit: Tamir Kalifa)

Last December, the city comptroller reported that Tel Aviv was suffering a lack of trained personnel and housing for its homeless population, Haaretz reported at the time. The previous year, municipal employee Yoav Ben-Artzi, whose department deals with the homeless, told the Hebrew daily that he believed the Social Services Ministry was downplaying the problem in Tel Aviv and around the country.

However, not everyone believes that the problem is quite as widespread as some are making it out to be.

Gil-Ad Harish is the chairman of the Lasova organization, which operates the shelter at which Ayal Levi is currently residing. It is one of three shelters that the nonprofit runs and which are currently home to around 125 individuals.

“In Tel Aviv I would guess there are no more than 200 who are staying on the streets rather than in shelters,” he said, noting that his organization was negotiating with the municipality for a facility to open another shelter for drug addicts.

“There are many homeless who are registered [as such] but they have already been treated and are living somewhere with some modest solution — with friends or family or renting a room together — but are still registered as homeless.”

However, for those on the streets, the pandemic is a very real threat, he said. The consumption of drugs and alcohol can weaken the immune system, he added, and because many of the homeless often do not adhere to basic rules of hygiene “they are definitely at a higher risk.”

“We are trying to push them into our shelters or hostels,” he said, adding that he is waiting to see the government step up its efforts.

In Jerusalem, the local authorities are more sanguine.

Jerusalem City Council member Fleur Hassan-Nahoum addresses a rally in solidarity with the alleged victims of Malka Leifer outside the Jerusalem District Court on March 13, 2019. (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)

“We don’t have a terrible problem. We think there’s about 30 people who are homeless in the city,” Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum told The Times of Israel.

While the city’s shelter, which currently hosts 15 people and, like in Tel Aviv, is now open 24 hours a day, the city is currently “not actively looking” for homeless people. If someone approaches the authorities and asks for help, he or she will be taken in but “we really can’t” search the streets for them because “they move around from place to place.”

“It turns out that our definition of homeless is a little narrower than in, say, Tel Aviv,” she explained, stating that the city only considers someone homeless if he or she is “unable to function in a way that they can get themselves a home.”

Citing the story of a medical student who was kicked out of her apartment by her landlord after she volunteered to work with coronavirus patients and subsequently received help from the municipality, Hassan-Nahoum said that such individuals would not be counted as homeless from the city’s perspective.

At the moment, prevention of further homelessness appears to be a significant concern on the part of the capital.

“We believe that because of corona[virus] and many losing jobs and livelihoods, we’ll see a large increase in the category of people we will have to help, because otherwise they’ll end up on the streets,” Hassan-Nahoum said.

Sue Surkes contributed to this report.

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