Itzik, a burly Telly Savalas look-a-like, comes to YEDID’s Tel Aviv center two days a week to help people resolve housing problems. Staffed mostly by volunteers, YEDID helps low-income Israelis find their way out of poverty. Itzik is a retired industrial engineer who worked in the Civil Service for more than three decades. He thumbs through a pile of paperwork, each case neatly stored in a plastic sleeve. The meticulously logged paper trail documents stories of human hardship and despair. Some of the cases have been dragging on for years with no solution in sight. Some are dismissed as hopeless after an initial perusal. Why do Itzik and the other 400 volunteers of YEDID keep coming back? “Because we hope to win the lottery,” he says.
Take the case of a 62-year-old single woman – let’s call her Leah – who has been certified legally blind by the National Insurance Institute (Israel’s Social Security). Her disabilities are both mental and physical. She lives on unemployment benefits in a tiny one-room apartment in Shechunat Hatikvah, a depressed neighborhood in South Tel Aviv. For company she takes care of a few stray cats, feeding them scraps she finds at the market. “You want to hear something crazy?” says Itzik. “She asked Bituach Leumi (Social Security), for rental assistance and they rejected her claim on the basis that she is independent. So on the one side they’re telling her she is legally blind, and on the other they say she is independent.” You can’t be both.
Itzik is now working to secure Leah a place in a hostel. But one of the conditions of the hostel is that you have to be independent She has sent letters to the Housing Ministry requesting a place in the hostel. But they have never replied. “There’s no way to call anyone. There’s no way to make direct contact. I send certified letters. They end up on the trash.”
“All the stories that I hear are difficult stories. Every fourth person is homeless.” He explains: “If you have housing difficulties you have a few options: One: You can get funding from the Housing Ministry to pay for an apartment—that’s the most simple. Two: You can get assigned public housing. Three: you can be placed in a hostel—an option for single people, not families.”
Now for the catches: “If you are unemployed, an invalid or your only income derives from Bituach Leumi, there is a chance you will be entitled to a public housing flat. But even if the Committee decides you are entitled to an apartment that does not mean you will get one. You have to wait in line. You might wait 5, 6 7, 8 years for 71 people to die. The Housing Ministry does not acquire new apartments.”
To illustrate the absurdity of the housing situation, Itzik describes another case. “There’s this Ethiopian woman. She has a salary of 4,500 shekels. Her housing costs, without utilities or taxes, are 2,500 shekels. She filled out a form to apply for public housing, and was told that she was not entitled to an apartment. “Go make another child,” they told her. “As a single parent, you are not entitled to an apartment if you have just two children.” He shrugs and smiles: “Can you believe they told her to have another child?”
Sari Rivkin, founder and Executive Director of YEDID puts these efforts into wider perspective: “Solving individual cases cannot fix the root causes of poverty. Our national policy advocacy complements the individual assistance we provide.”
On a national level, YEDID promotes different policy initiatives, many of them becoming law. Just this past July, for example, an initiative for the government to provide rental assistance to people waiting for public housing to become available passed a preliminary hearing in the Knesset.
While Itzik plugs away at his pile of letters, YEDID’s legal team takes the battle to the Knesset. Together the volunteers and legal staff form a formidable team.