The murder of four homeless men in New York City, shortly before Yom Kippur, was on my mind the other day as I walked across the plaza fronting my new Tel Aviv apartment building.
The stone-paved square is a popular destination for families, dog owners, and shoppers. Children love to climb up and slide down the plaza’s inclined wooden decks that enclose a picturesque garden and fish pond. At night, skateboarders kickflip and grind along them, and some mornings you can find homeless men sleeping on the platforms before police shoo them away.
On the day in question, I came across a gaunt-looking man waking up on the plaza. He was someone I recognized by his hipster haircut, nose-ring and scrawny tattooed arms. With his bike, a guitar propped on the back, and a cell phone he plugs into an electrical outlet outside a store on Dizengoff Street, he seems more in sync than most of the other bedraggled sunburnt men one typically sees sprawled on the city’s sidewalks.
When I wished the man a good morning, he said thank you in strong Russian-accented Hebrew and smiled in appreciation of my respectful greeting. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Either way, the next moment he mounted his bike and pedaled off.
There was nothing momentous about our exchange — no threat, no crime, nothing to write up on the front page of the New York Times or the Times of Israel. I’m sharing it here to make a quiet point.
Years ago, as a filmmaker, I spent a good deal of time with the homeless of the Midwestern city where I lived before making aliyah this past August. The result was a piece that, alas, is still relevant.
In my work I found that the few hundred street people of Madison, Wisconsin (population 258,000) represented a small slice, perhaps 10%, of my state’s homeless population. There were many more less visible homeless people forced to sleep in their cars, or coach surf from relative to friend, and back.
Since moving to Israel, from what I’ve read and seen, this country’s homelessness problem is miniscule compared to America, where New York City alone has more than 60,000 homeless, and other metropolises, such as San Francisco and Milwaukee, have tent cities as big as army bases.
One of Israel’s challenges seems to be defining what constitutes homelessness. According to the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services’s criteria, far less people qualify for support services compared to the number of homeless people civil rights activists claim there are in the country. That discrepancy, as cited in a 2018 Times of Israel article, and based on 2016 data, amounted to about 2,000 compared to 25,000.
A second challenge appears to be the lack of a sense of immediacy. A Wikipedia article I read on homelessness, last edited this past September, quoted Tel Aviv attorney Gilad Harish, who founded a homeless shelter after he saw a dramatic rise of homeless men on the street in the wake of the 1991 wave of Soviet Immigration. The article it drew upon was published by Israel21c, in 2002.
The Wikipedia article I consulted also cited the Association for Civil Rights in Israel’s criticism of the government for ignoring the rise of homelessness that Harish observed. Visiting ARCI’s website I could not find homelessness listed on the organization’s “Issues on Our Agenda” dropdown menu. (I could also not find homelessness on The Times of Israel blog site “Topics” dropdown list.)
Statistics show that Israel’s percentage of homeless people is low compared to other developed nations, according to Wikipedia, so it makes sense for social action groups to hone in on hot-button issues, such as Palestinian-Israeli relations, refugee and asylum seekers’ rights, anti-racism, and freedom of expression.
ELEM, another organization cited by Wikipedia, does include homelessness on its website. The group works with youth in distress, a topic for another blog post.
For the record, I am not pointing fingers, just sharing my thoughts on Sukkot, a holiday when Jews eat and sleep in ephemeral huts to carry on a tradition handed down by our ancestors who were once homeless wanderers in the desert on their way here.
As a postscript, my work in the streets of my former hometown led to a 2011 documentary. Shortly before settling in Tel Aviv, I went back into the field to produce a music video with Madison’s homeless and was sad to discover that people I had featured in my earlier work, people who showed promise of getting off the streets, were still on them.
Here’s the documentary. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JeF3qlDzts
To watch the music video, look for it on YouTube. It’s called “I See You.”