Earlier this week, my daughter and I witnessed an awful row—a screaming match between two strangers in a Herzliya mall with food tossed and aggressive physical thrusts. It started, apparently, because one party did not clear his table of trash. The cleaning attendant was left to sweep up the mess—much larger, of course, than the remnants that had started the altercation. They kept coming back for more, determined to direct the final condemnation. It was a quintessentially worst-of-Israel moment. I was left trying to play it down to my 12-year-old daughter, who, after living in Israel for just four months, laughed and shrugged it off as a “typical-Israeli” incident. So I was left searching, as we Olim frequently do, for something positive to justify our return to Israel.

I found it this morning at YEDID, a citizen rights and advocacy non-profit organization, staffed mostly by volunteers, which helps low-income Israelis find their way out of poverty. 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. He 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. She has no family or friends. 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.”

Sometimes Leah comes to YEDID with a companion who volunteers to chaperone her. But sometimes she arrives alone. “It’s terrifying,” says Itzik. “She walks into the walls. I have no idea how she manages to get here. When she has to sign papers, I have to hold her hand to direct her.”

Itzik deals almost exclusively with housing issues. His experiences have made him cynical about the Housing Ministry. “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?”

With so many frustrating cases and so few victories, what makes him keep coming back? ”It’s the little successes—they are few and far between, and sometimes you are trying to achieve a certain goal and you end up solving a different problem.”

Sari Rivkin, founder and Executive Director of YEDID puts these efforts into wider perspective: “YEDID understands that trying to solve individual cases cannot solve the root causes of poverty. Our holistic anti-poverty approach complements the individual assistance we provide with national policy advocacy, which is driven by trends witnessed at our 16 Citizen Rights Centers across the country.” With volunteers like Itzik on the front line of the housing battle, YEDID knows where the systemic problems lie.

On a national level, YEDID has been promoting different housing policy initiatives, including the following:

  • Back in 2009 YEDID began an initiative for the government to provide rental assistance to people waiting for public housing to become available. The initiative was realized as policy when a bill proposed by MK Orly Levy-Abekasis passed a preliminary hearing in the Knesset.
  • With advice and assistance from YEDID, MK Miri Regev made socio-political history this last July by successfully advocating for NIS 1.5 Billion to be allocated to public housing and related social projects.
  • To mark Israel’s National Public Housing Day on July 22nd, YEDID’s Legal Department presented the Knesset with a special report on the state of public housing. The report details the problems that public housing tenants and those waiting for public housing face. It also calls on the government to get involved with public housing, and proposes several different solutions.
  • This last February, MK Isaac Herzog proposed a bill in the Knesset, initiated by YEDID, that would ensure that contractors who win auctions for State-owned land will have to allocate 20 percent of the apartments they build as affordable housing units at a substantial discount.

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. And each time I step into one of YEDID’s 16 offices, I feel better about being back in this country–yelling, food court skirmishes and all.