Informal homeless shelter in Jerusalem, running for 3 years, ordered shut

Local activist heading unique independent effort to help unhoused population told to stop giving aid and vacate three-story building in center of capital

The Katsin Ha'Ir building in Jerusalem, in use as a homeless shelter, September 2022. (Yisrael Cohen)
The Katsin Ha'Ir building in Jerusalem, in use as a homeless shelter, September 2022. (Yisrael Cohen)

A largely abandoned building in central Jerusalem that has provided shelter for some of Jerusalem’s homeless population for the past three years, through a pioneering project led by a local activist, has been ordered to shut its doors immediately.

The Israel Land Authority, the owner of the three-story building, is looking to put it on the market but activists are urging the government to leave it open ahead of the cold winter months until a potential buyer comes forward.

Yisrael Cohen says he was given permission about six years ago to stay in the Katzin Ha’ir building, at Hillel Street 27, when it was being used by the Jerusalem municipality and the state.

Up until 2015, the building was home to a local urban center operated by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), as part of the national and now-defunct program called Katzin Ha’ir, to provide various services to soldiers and reservists on leave and in need outside their military base. These services included mental health support and treatment, legal assistance, and temporary residence during compulsory service. Built in 1886, the building served as an all-girls boarding school until the mid-1940s and is considered a protected site in the capital.

When Jerusalem’s Katzin Ha’ir operations were shut down, Cohen remained behind with an unofficial
arrangement that he would look after the building in return for living there, he said.

Three years ago, Cohen realized that he could make use of the space to help others and opened the doors and rooms to create an informal homeless shelter, offering meals and support. Since then, hundreds have passed through its doors.

Cohen told The Times of Israel that, as vacant premises with space to spare, and multiple needs on the street around it, “the building should be used for activities to rehabilitate homeless people, or for other social purposes, such as treating at-risk youth, at least until it is actually sold.”

He also noted that, aside from wider economic factors causing homelessness to grow, with winter coming, the demand for a roof through a cold Jerusalem night is going up. Existing shelters in Jerusalem and elsewhere have few spaces, and the building has the space to accommodate.

Cohen’s story of what’s been created — and will be lost when the building is sold — is quite poignant, as he experienced homelessness for many years before finding his way to activism and advocacy.

Yisrael Cohen in Jerusalem, September 2022 (Yisrael Cohen)

“There were family issues. I went away to boarding school, but it didn’t work out for me so at the age of 15 I found myself homeless, on the streets, doing drugs. I really got to know that world. I enlisted in the army, as a lone soldier, and somehow things turned around,” he said.

“I met a social worker who made the connections I needed, found me funding. And I went from dropping out of school to spending two years doing my bagruyot [matriculation exams]. Then, with more scholarships, I went on to college, to study social work because I wanted to make a difference to those others who find themselves homeless,” he added.

While studying, Cohen started out on the mission he felt had been handed to him to help the homeless, drawing from his own experiences. As he had been helped, he wanted to help others out on the streets.

The shelter opens its doors at about 9 p.m. and welcomes all who are looking for a roof over their head. They are given clothes, food, showers and a bed. At 7 a.m. the next morning, they leave to spend another day often wandering the streets, although with a specific place to come back to to safely spend the night.

Cohen knows from his own experience that being homeless is rarely the only challenge facing those he tries to help — addiction, psychological problems, physical illness are also common. So, he also works to connect his “guests” to the resources they need to move on, such as medical help, social services, financial help and employment opportunities.

“This is the biggest challenge by far. There is a lack of holistic understanding of all the resources needed and rehabilitation,” according to Yesh Atid MK Yasmin Sacks Friedman, in a report she commissioned and was published this summer.

Sacks argued that multiple agencies with responsibilities in this area were failing to connect, and insufficient help was available for a growing number of people who need it.

The only thing on which there seems to be agreement on around homelessness in Israel is that no one knows exactly how many people are affected. The Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry puts the number at 2,250 (as of 2020) while local social services departments reported that they had had contact with 3,470 people. Activists say the real number is likely to be considerably higher.

A homeless man sleeps on a bench in the city center of Jerusalem on February 27, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90

Shelters that are opened fill almost instantly, including for example the a new shelter in south Tel Aviv where men congregate around the gates to ensure they can get one of the 144 places available each night.

There are estimates that the total number of beds in shelters across the country can only house around a third of those in need.

It is not clear why Cohen’s private initiative, which has run uninterrupted for three years, should suddenly be shuttered. Even if there’s a desire to sell the building, there is no obvious reason for it to be emptied before then.

The Times of Israel reached out to the Israel Land Authority for an update on the proposals for the building and the request for Cohen and his project to vacate it, but received no response.

Cohen said he is currently working on building a network of supporters who, in his words “can make the government see sense.”

In the meantime, he says he is ignoring the request to leave and will continue offering whatever help he can until he is pushed out.

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