Ze’ev’s a musician who can’t make a living • Dimitri, now a heroin addict, has been sleeping rough for 10 years • Muhammed found his way to Tel Aviv from the streets of Tiberias • Meir gets his meals from a synagogue

Israel’s homeless population has increased by 300 over the past year, in part due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the country’s 1,800 street dwellers hard. As the crisis threatens to drag more people toward rock bottom, experts are warning of the long-term economic impact of COVID-19 and a wave of new homeless. A special Shomrim report

Ze’ev’s a musician who can’t make a living • Dimitri, now a heroin addict, has been sleeping rough for 10 years • Muhammed found his way to Tel Aviv from the streets of Tiberias • Meir gets his meals from a synagogue

Israel’s homeless population has increased by 300 over the past year, in part due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the country’s 1,800 street dwellers hard. As the crisis threatens to drag more people toward rock bottom, experts are warning of the long-term economic impact of COVID-19 and a wave of new homeless. A special Shomrim report

On our streets

Ze’ev’s a musician who can’t make a living • Dimitri, now a heroin addict, has been sleeping rough for 10 years • Muhammed found his way to Tel Aviv from the streets of Tiberias • Meir gets his meals from a synagogue

Israel’s homeless population has increased by 300 over the past year, in part due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the country’s 1,800 street dwellers hard. As the crisis threatens to drag more people toward rock bottom, experts are warning of the long-term economic impact of COVID-19 and a wave of new homeless. A special Shomrim report

Doron Avigad

Photographs: Bea Bar Kallos

October 16, 2020

Summary

T

ake a look at Ze’ev. He’s a musician. He has the look of someone to whom life has been particularly cruel - unfairly and without a trace of basic compassion. When Ze’ev sits waiting for a bus at a roofless stop on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, people keep their distance, walk briskly by, their faces turned up in an inadvertent displaying of disgust, and perhaps even fear. Maybe it’s his shaggy beard; maybe it’s his Anglo accent, which doesn’t seem to fit the character of the homeless guy he’s "playing;" maybe it’s the combination of his dirty clothes and strange posture, his body hunched over yet taut in defiance, and that guitar that looks so big on his back; and maybe it’s actually the huge plastic bag in which he keeps God knows what. In his current state, Ze’ev frightens people. When I approach him to talk a little, one fine day in August, before the second lockdown, the entire street appears to stop and look.

"I had a pretty good life," he says surprisingly. "I’m a musician, and I used to play for people in restaurants. I worked hard and every day and things were going pretty well even. In January this year, I was in a traffic accident; I was almost killed. I spent three months in hospital and all I wanted was to get out of there. And then just as I was finally discharged, the coronavirus pandemic started, the restaurants shut down, and my work dried up. I searched and searched. I was willing to do anything. But I came up with nothing. I lost the apartment I was living in; I ran out of money for rent and bills. I’m living on the street now, going from one place to the next.

Yoav Ben-Artzi, the director of the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality department that deals with the city’s street dwellers: "Each case is different, and it really doesn’t have to be from hi-tech straight onto the street. It can happen to people in all fields of employment. I’m extremely concerned about the artists and stage performers, and I don’t know how long they’ll be able to survive this crisis."

Tel Aviv | Photo: Bea Bar Kallos

"What am I doing here? The middle of Tel Aviv, Allenby Street - this isn’t the place for me; it’s tough here, very tough. I want someone to offer me a gig in a restaurant; that’s proper help. That’s what I know how to do, and I rehearse every day. I rehearse because I'm a musician. Over the past few months, no one’s wanted anything to do with us, the people sleeping on the streets. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I still don’t know where I’ll be sleeping tonight. I’ve no money, no job; I had a home but that’s gone too. I’ve got no choice but the street right now, but it’s tough. I don’t know if I can handle it. I can’t get used to it."

From Allenby, I make my way to Rothschild Boulevard, the epicenter of Israel’s social justice protests almost a decade ago, when the thoroughfare was turned into an encampment of hope that came and went. When I wake Dimitri, he opens a pair of glazed eyes. Heroin, I ask. "Yes," he replies, before adding: "Or whatever I can get my hands on." Dimitri’s sleeping on a particularly filthy mattress on the boulevard, alongside two other street dwellers, a foreign laborer and an ultra-Orthodox guy in shabby yeshiva garb. Dimitri, 37, immigrated to Israel from Russia as a young teen; he’s now been on the streets of Israel for 10 years.

Ze'ev: "I’m a musician, and I used to play for people in restaurants. The coronavirus pandemic started, the restaurants shut down, and my work dried up. I was willing to do anythin, but I came up with nothing. I lost the apartment I was living in; I ran out of money for rent and bills. I’m living on the street now, going from one place to the next".

"My younger brother got hooked on drugs," he recounts, "and one day, he got into his car completely off his head and was killed in an accident. It broke me; I started using too. I didn’t take to the streets right away. And when I ended up here, I tried to get myself straight and go back to the life I had. But I gave up after a while. It’s plain to see today that no one cares about us; no one’s concerned about us. I don’t believe I’ll ever get out of here. We sleep on the grass, and if they turn on the sprinklers, we move to the stairs under Bank Leumi."

Dimitri isn’t sure whether the pandemic has made things any worse. "People keep their distance, they don’t give money. We disgust them. The only thing I care about is getting my next fix. I’m in a bad way; I’ve lost hope. I served in a combat unit in the military. I never thought I’d end up like this. But it is what it is. For 10 years now, no one has cared. The pandemic makes no difference to me; I don’t care. I don’t know if I’ve been infected; I’m not scared about being infected. What do I need a mask for?"

The new homeless

We have hit rock bottom: A stratum of people so destitute and miserable that they seem to have nothing to lose. But this, of course, isn’t true; there’s always something to lose. To most of us, they’re transparent, non-existent - whether the result of an internal defense mechanism, repression, or simply indifference. And just like all other aspects of world order that have been shaken to the core by the coronavirus crisis over the past months, this community of the unseen could be facing an influx of what are being called "the newly homeless" - people who have ended up on the street as a result of severe financial distress, people like Ze’ev, the musician.

According to figures from the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, and Social Services, at the end of July 2020, a total of 1,819 individuals around the country were listed and documented as street dwellers, as opposed to 1,505 at the corresponding time last year. Of the 314 new cases, 257 have joined the ranks of the homeless since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, between March and the end of July. At the end of September, the streets of Tel Aviv alone are ‘home’ to an additional 204 people.

These figures should be qualified by the fact that no more than 10 percent of Israel’s homeless (a few dozen) are indeed people who have never lived a single day on the street before. This qualification, however, also requires qualification, with the economic ramifications of the crisis clearly responsible for forcing a significant number of former street dwellers back onto the park benches and sidewalks.

Maha Matar, the head of the Social Affairs Ministry department that deals with the country’s homeless: "People don't become homeless overnight; it’s a process. Not every family that loses its home ends up on the street. Those who have the strength to fight won’t end up on the street. The ones who end up on the street are the weaker individuals, who’ve lost faith and have no support."

"They’re a particularly sad story," says Maha Matar, the head of the Social Affairs Ministry department that deals with the country’s homeless. "Around 30 percent of the 257 new street dwellers during the coronavirus period are rehabilitated homeless individuals who had already found jobs and were seen as success stories. Due to the crisis, however, they lost their source of income and quickly found themselves back on the streets. When you take care of someone, and they feel like they’re back on the right track and have rehabilitated themselves, and then things go downhill again, it’s truly frustrating, for the individual in question and the caseworkers too.

"People don't become homeless overnight; it’s a process," Matar explains. "People who default on a mortgage can end up homeless, but a street dweller is a completely different category. I foresee an increase in the number of street dwellers. Some people will lose their homes and end up on the street. Not all of them, of course. Not every family that loses its home ends up on the street. Many receive support from extended family or fight for their rights. Those who have the strength to fight won’t end up on the street. The ones who end up on the street are the weaker individuals, who’ve lost faith and have no support."

According to Matar, just like with the coronavirus itself, which strikes harder at the weaker sectors of the population, various risk factors also increase the chances of ending up on the street. "Street dwellers," she says, "are usually people with no family ties. They’re social outcasts, without a mainstay, without family support. Their family unit is broken, or their family members don’t want to hear from them and don’t want any contact with them. They don’t have anyone to embrace them, to offer them a solution, or to provide them with an alternative to the street. They’re extremely lonely and hurt individuals, who feel they don’t have a lifeline from anyone. For the most part, they’ve also lost faith in their environment, in people and the entire system."

"It’s very sad," says David Agayev, chairman of Echpat, a non-profit that offers assistance to street dwellers in south Tel Aviv. "Suddenly you’re seeing people sitting and sleeping in their cars in various large open parking lots in the city. These are people who’ve fallen by the wayside, who were living hand to mouth, who didn’t have enough money for rent. We’ve had around 20 such individuals who’ve approached us for help with food and a shower. It was very hard for them at first to accept help.

"These are people who aren’t substance abusers, who’ve never been street dwellers until now; they’re very different from regular homeless individuals. The danger for them is the trauma they’re experiencing. After all, just four or five months ago, they were taking their kids to kindergarten in the same car in which they’re now sleeping. If you go looking for them, ready yourself for a surprise or two; you may just run into one of your neighbors."

From hi-tech to the streets?

I did go looking. Midday, afternoon and evening, I lay in wait for them in one of those parking lots in the south of the city. Fortunately, I didn’t come across a neighbor or acquaintance, and I don’t know how I would have responded if I had. Moreover, "a wave of homeless" has yet to materialize, just a moderate uptick. What about stories of going from a hi-tech one day to living on the street the next? Well, it doesn’t really work like that.

"There has indeed been an increase in the numbers, and we’ll feel it soon," Matar confirms. "But the numbers are small right now; around 10 percent of the total number of street dwellers are newly homeless individuals who have experienced a rapid decline in their situations."

Dimitri: "People keep their distance, they don’t give money. We disgust them. The only thing I care about is getting my next fix. I’m in a bad way; I’ve lost hope. I served in a combat unit in the military. I never thought I’d end up like this. But it is what it is. For 10 years now, no one has cared. The pandemic makes no difference to me; I don’t care."

Yoav Ben-Artzi, who has served for the past 12 years as the director of the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality department that deals with the city’s street dwellers, stresses that, "on the municipal level, the number of new street dwellers is small, and I’m not seeing a wave of newly homeless individuals in Tel Aviv at this stage."

One of the newly homeless, Ben-Artzi shares, "was an agent for Airbnb, just an ordinary guy who had no source of income and ended up on the street. Another guy was a fitness coach who used to work in Eilat before moving to Tel Aviv, but then got stuck without a job. He’s also dealing with a tough divorce, and there may be other factors that drove him to the streets faster than others.

"Each case is different, and it really doesn’t have to be from hi-tech straight onto the street. It can happen to people in all fields of employment. I’m extremely concerned about the artists and stage performers, and I don’t know how long they’ll be able to survive this crisis. We may also see a phenomenon of people like you and me, people with fixed jobs who didn’t put anything aside for a rainy day and end up without money for rent. That’s not happening right now, but it could."

And what about contingency plans?

"I believe the Construction and Housing Ministry should prepare for a situation in which a certain sector of the population could find itself at risk of ending up on the street. We need to come up with a mechanism that will help these people pay their rent. We need to help them keep their heads above water, but not label them with solutions like dedicated housing. We have to get them through the period, and then, after we finally say goodbye to the crisis, we need to help them return to their regular lives without any negative stigmas."

Drug addiction among street dwellers is a well-known issue, but just when it seemed that things couldn’t get any worse, the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the problem. "The closing of the borders has led to a decline in the quality of the drugs in the country, and the dealers have started adding synthetic substances," Agayev explains.

Tel Aviv | Photo: Bea Bar Kallos

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, according to Agayev, there has been a migration of street dwellers from the periphery to Tel Aviv - a process that reached its peak, he adds, during the 17-day strike by social workers in July. "Some street dwellers realized they could no longer hack it in the small communities in which they were living, that they weren’t getting any support from the social workers, and they decided to move to the big city because here we have a few organizations that have remained in operation throughout," Agayev says. "Drug addicts on the streets in Lod and Yavne, for example, who were totally dependent on the social welfare frameworks in their cities, migrated to Tel Aviv and then chose to remain here even after the strike ended."

Agayev also talks of the migration to Tel Aviv of another group of street dwellers - homeless women. "This is a population group that had very little recourse even before the coronavirus crisis, so just imagine what it’s like for them now. They’re supposed to be provided with frameworks of their own; they have more physical problems and some have been sexually abused. We need medical, psychological, and post-traumatic solutions. We’re definitely seeing more homeless women in the city than we did before; they aren’t new to the streets, but they’re new to Tel Aviv. They’ve come here from other cities, from the north in particular."

Lockdown hit the homeless hard

I run into Muhammed (not his real name) on a Friday afternoon on Rothschild Boulevard. Carrying a large plastic bag filled with cans and bottles in his one hand, he doesn’t appear to be in any particular hurry to catch the last taxi that will take him "home." He has a house in Rahat, he says, but he’s hardly ever there. "I ended up on the street after an ugly divorce, and somehow found myself in Tiberias," he says. "I started using [drugs] and my situation got worse and worse. I sleep occasionally in Tel Aviv. I moved here two months ago, but it’s not the place for me. I’m trying to get clean, step by step. Can you spare 20 shekels to help me out?"

Despite his thick cough, which he puts down to chain-smoking, he looks stronger and healthier than the other rough-sleepers I’ve spoken to. "In Tiberias," he says, "I lived without knowing the time of day, the day of the week; I didn’t care. Now, with the coronavirus, it’s a tough time too. People shy away from me, from all of us, actually. They cross the street when they see us, or they start walking really fast. I don’t blame them."

Unlike Agayev, who links the migration of street dwellers to Tel Aviv with the social workers’ strike in the summer, Ben-Artzi doesn’t see it as anything new. "Tel Aviv’s always been a city that attracts all social phenomena, including the street dwellers," he says. "Some may have come from other cities in search of assistance during the strike, but I didn’t pick up on a trend of any kind. We’ve been dealing with street dwellers from around the country coming to Tel Aviv for years now. Sometimes, other cities send them here in taxis - anything as long as they find some help here. When it comes to gender, the figures have remained pretty stable over the years, at a level of 13 percent women and 87 percent men, with a shift of a percentage either way from time to time."

One undisputed issue is the fact that the economic ramifications of the coronavirus crisis have come down hard on two specific groups among the street dwellers - the rehabilitated, and also the refuseniks, those street dwellers who’ve refused for years to accept medical or mental health care from the authorities, such as hospitalization or even assistance from the welfare services. The crisis, however, has changed everything. According to Matar from the Social Affairs Ministry, "around 60 percent of those who have registered for assistance during the crisis are street dwellers who’ve refused care in the past but now need it. They don’t really want to be integrated into any of the frameworks, but they do want contact with the welfare services to get support and help. These street dwellers, I believe, have suddenly lost their source of food. The lockdown went on for a long time, people were out on the streets less, and the street dwellers received less money. This gave rise to a need for basic items - food, clean clothes and hygiene products."

David Agayev, chairman of Echpat, a non-profit that offers assistance to street dwellers in south Tel Aviv: "Suddenly you’re seeing people sitting and sleeping in their cars in various large open parking lots in the city. These are people who’ve fallen by the wayside, who were living hand to mouth, who didn’t have enough money for rent".

Agayev adds another element to the picture, further indication of the heightened distress. "Over the past months," he says, "we’ve been getting more calls from the health maintenance organizations. We used to barely hear from them before. Street dwellers themselves are now turning to them because of the deterioration in their situation."

A second disturbing trend concerns the street dwellers who were well on their way to rehabilitation before the pandemic struck. According to Ben-Artzi, a large number of the "new" street dwellers in the last six months are homeless individuals who almost managed to return to the community, to a normal agenda, only to be knocked back down again by the effects of the crisis. "Those who took a knock and regressed were actually those who had already managed to rehabilitate themselves, who were in housing, and had one foot back in the normal circle of life," he says. "They found themselves back on the street. Before the coronavirus pandemic, they managed somehow to survive financially by doing manual labor and odd jobs, but when they lost those, they weren’t able to keep their head above water, to pay their bills and rent. Some 70 percent of the street dwellers are addicts - drugs or alcohol or both - so their return to the streets was also accompanied by a return to the use of psychoactive substances."

"Deaths we hadn’t seen before"

Drug addiction among street dwellers is a well-known issue, but just when it seemed that things couldn’t get any worse, the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the problem. "The closing of the borders has led to a decline in the quality of the drugs in the country, and the dealers have started adding synthetic substances," Agayev explains. "Over the past four to five months, there’s been a spate of what the police may call overdoses, but medicine calls poisoning. We’re encountering more and more deaths on the street. In the past, addicts who overdosed were usually dying alone, but now we’re now seeing more and more instances of multiple deaths. Two at a time, three at a time. Everyone who’s used the same junk just dies."

What substances have you been finding on the streets since the beginning of the crisis?

"About 70 percent of the street dwellers we encounter use psychoactive drugs, almost always with a preference for the very cheap substances, which are also very dangerous. Strong painkillers, like opiates, haven’t been available from abroad at all since the beginning of the crisis. So we’re suddenly seeing some strange things - for example, with Fentanyl patches, a very strong synthetic opioid. It’s given mainly to terminally ill patients, with a doctor’s prescription of course. The patches are hard to find these days in pharmacies, but there’s a large supply on the street. Because it’s a medicinal drug that the addicts aren’t very familiar with, they’re experimenting with it in all sorts of ways and risking their lives in the process. They’re smoking it, injecting it, and it’s causing deaths we hadn’t seen before."

According to figures from Echpat, the organization Agayev heads, over the past six months, 20 street dwellers have been found dead in Tel Aviv, as opposed to just eight for all of 2019. And to make matters even worse, in most instances, the addicts didn’t die alone. In other words, they had used a particular substance with a friend or friends and died together.

Ben-Artzi shares Agayev’s concerns. "There has indeed been an increase in the number of deaths, and I think that psychoactive drugs have played a part in this because they’re being mixed with various unknown substances that no one knows anything about," he says. "I don’t have any official data on the causes of death, but from what I’ve seen, there’s been an increase in deaths related to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems."

National figures. Source: Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, and Social Services, July 2020

Did you contact the police?

"Yes, at the height of the crisis, after encountering several deaths that seemed to have a common denominator. After investigating the matter myself a little, I went to the police and said: ‘Listen, I believe there’s junk on the street that’s been mixed with poisons, dangerous substances.’ I also made inquiries about where the deceased street dwellers had been hanging around and found they had all been in the area of the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. I asked the police to look into it. After waiting a while to hear from them, I was told they found nothing."

And that’s it?

"I still think we’re dealing with impure substances and that the toxic materials that have been added to the drugs are causing the deaths. I'm really afraid that’s the truth. Unfortunately, however, after contacting the police and getting the answer I got, there’s nothing more I can do. I expected more from the police; I expected them to ask me a few more questions. I gave them precise information about where the deceased street dwellers were hanging out at the Central Bus Station. They could have cross-checked my information with the intelligence they have on the drug dealers in the area. That didn’t happen. A number of deaths occurred there in close proximity, warranting a more in-depth investigation, a deeper look to try to understand if there’s a common thread to the deaths."

Shomrim asked the Israel Police if it had seen an increase in deaths among street dwellers since the beginning of the pandemic, but was told that the "we don’t have figures for the requested segment." The official at the Spokesperson’s Office with whom we spoke, in fact, was somewhat surprised by our question and advised us to approach the hospitals and other medical facilities.

"We don’t have numbers for incidents of death among street dwellers since the start of the coronavirus crisis," said a statement from the Health Ministry. "They fall under the purview of the Social Affairs Ministry and we advise you to contact them."

Muhammed: "I ended up on the street after an ugly divorce."

And according to Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, "based on the cases identified on admission and marked in the system as street dwellers, there hasn’t been an increase in requests for care." Ichilov didn’t respond to our question concerning an increase in deaths among street dwellers in Tel Aviv.

Matar offers the position of the Social Affairs Ministry, carefully considering her words. "When it comes to incidents of death among street dwellers this year, we’ve seen no difference compared to the previous year - not in terms of the numbers, and not in terms of the causes of death," she says. "No links of any kind to drugs have been reported. There may be something to it, but it’s yet to be looked into, so I can’t comment on that. On the national level, 45 street dwellers were reported dead in 2019, with 28 of the deaths recorded through to the end of July 2019. This year, through to the end of July, a total of 26 deaths have been recorded.

"In other words, when I examine the figures in terms of the place and cause of death, I don’t see any difference. So there’s no evidence just now of a connection [between the type of drug and the increase in deaths in the Tel Aviv area]. There have been allegations, and I’ve heard about them from the Tel Aviv welfare officials, but like I said, they’re allegations that have yet to be investigated."

"I've seen enough epidemics"

An optimistic tone, nonetheless, and in spite of everything, comes from a street dweller who’s by no means a rookie. Meir, who, after almost a decade on the streets and a long history of addiction, is now living together with three other street dwellers under the care of a neighborhood synagogue in Tel Aviv’s HaTikvah Quarter - which means three meals a day and a large white skullcap on his head. Meir, it must be said, has always been able to look after himself. Even as a street dweller on Ben-Gurion Avenue in the city, more than seven years ago, he set up a model bed for himself, with all his surplus homeless gear arranged around him in perfect order.

"In France, once upon a time," he says, "I was a window dresser in Paris. I immigrated to Israel, couldn’t find a job, and things went downhill from there. At some point, I was living on a religious kibbutz and participating in a rehab program there. I found out that the instructor himself was using; but when he realized I knew, he yelled at me and threw me out. I took a blanket and said to myself: Okay, I’ll sleep on the streets for a few nights."

Meir: "I overcame the fear of AIDS, so now I’m optimistic."

As is the case in so many similar stories, the temporary became permanent. Meir describes the social protest of 2011 as a highlight of his life, as a summer everyone longs for. The streets were suddenly filled with people sleeping in tents, and he felt a sense of belonging, of solidarity, like he was on the right side, a rarity for him. But the protests eventually died out and the demonstrators disappeared, and Meir remained.

"When they took the tents and removed the people, I was left behind on Ben-Gurion Avenue," he recounts. "I had some tough years there, until the social workers turned up and wanted to move me to HaTikvah Quarter. The rabbi said: ‘I agree, just put a skullcap on your head.’ He was right. The coronavirus doesn’t scare me. I see young homeless people living in fear because of the virus, but I’ve seen enough epidemics in my life. After all, I overcame the fear of AIDS, so now I’m optimistic."

The shelters are full and rehab failed

Crises are a time when you usually find out how many holes there are in your safety nets, and how big they are too. In the case of the street dwellers, the safety net takes the form of shelters - the housing frameworks where some get a bed, a hot shower, meals, medical and rehab care - and the inpatient drug rehab units that fall under the responsibility of the Health Ministry.

Both types of facilities have suffered as a result of the coronavirus crisis. While the shelters in most cities filled up quickly and remained inaccessible to street dwellers with mobility issues, the drug rehab units failed to prepare in time for isolation procedures, and when the suitable arrangements were made, their capacities were cut by more than half.

"Street dwellers are getting less social welfare attention now than they were six months ago, before the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis," Agayev says. "Today, when I go out to distribute food, they’re always asking for water. We handed out 7,000 bottles of water in two weeks in the summer. Before the pandemic, they had a lot more places to turn to for assistance. They also went into rehab a lot more; today, it’s not easy at all to get into rehab. The inpatient units aren’t adequately prepared to place people in isolation."

And what about the shelters?

"The shelters are full and aren’t suitable anyway for at least 50 percent of the street dwellers, many of whom are people who need accessibility, who can’t climb up onto a bunk bed or walk up a flight of stairs. The people on the street are usually shooting up, and they have all kinds of thromboses in the veins of their legs."

Ben-Artzi, from the Tel Aviv Municipality, thinks otherwise. "Yes, there are bunk beds and stairs in the shelters, but I know of very few street dwellers who can’t go there due to accessibility issues," he says. "We always try to find them a place on the ground floor and one of the bottom bunks.

"As for the inpatient drug rehab units," Ben-Artzi continues, "you’d need to ask the Health Ministry. I wish they’d open more isolation rooms so that we could take in more patients from among the street dwellers. At the start of the crisis, I asked the Health Ministry to open a designated framework for street dwellers that require isolation, but the Health Ministry is what it is, so you’ll have to take your question to them. We can only point out the needs from the field, and that’s exactly what we did at the start of the crisis."

What kind of response did you get?

"I was told that they understand the need and that they would be opening just such a framework. And thanks to us, one did indeed open, with 30 beds for street dwellers, at the Kiryat Shlomo Hospital. At some stage, however, they turned it into a facility for non-drug users only. When I told them that such a facility would be irrelevant, they promised to open frameworks for drug users and women on the street who are involved in prostitution.

"That was a long time ago, and no such frameworks have been set up yet. We’re constantly trying to get things moving. There was a real opportunity during the first lockdown to convince street dwellers to seek treatment, because they had no way of getting drugs, but the inpatient rehab units couldn’t keep up. That window of opportunity has closed."

According to a statement from the Health Ministry, "At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, we instructed the inpatient drug rehab units to reduce the number of patients in the facilities in an effort to reduce the risk of infection and maintain social distancing. Furthermore, we asked the rehab units to set aside a designated isolation area where new admissions could spend the first 10 days. We also issued instructions concerning separate bathrooms, the wearing of masks, hygiene standards, the use of hand sanitizer, and preventing interaction with the other hospital patients. We also asked for daily temperature checks, for the staff and the patients. These regulations allowed the rehab units to continue functioning. The capacity at some of the units dropped for two or three months, but with the changes in the directives and the lifting of some of the restrictions, capacity has returned to normal."

Regarding additional isolation solutions for street dwellers, the Health Ministry stated: "There’s no need for additional solutions because street dwellers are being taken in as per usual. There’s a designated rehab framework for street dwellers who are addicts in Kiryat Shlomo. Some time ago, in light of concerns that many street dwellers would require isolation due to exposure to the coronavirus, we discussed a request to open a designated housing facility for this population, with a resident narcologist to serve there as a consultant. In light of the lack of inquiries in this regard, however, such a facility was deemed irrelevant and the matter, therefore, was shelved."