VIDEO - They started arriving en masse at 10:30 pm: hundreds of youths, some as young as 12 or 13, flooding central Jerusalem, carrying beer bottles and cigarette boxes. The loud music that boomed from local pubs and eateries served as stimulating background, and the police patrol cars that circled the streets only spiced their evening.
They were everywhere: Between Jaffa and Hillel Streets, all over the Nahlat Shiv'a alleyways, on Zion Square and Hatulot Square. Some stood in doorways, others sat on benches and sidewalks. It was a huge street party that kept expanding as the hour grew late.
On the street, they call them "square dwellers". The professional term that applies to them is "youth at risk", or "disconnected youths". It is enough to peruse the vague definitions behind those terms to understand the difficulties encountered by those people trying to help them.
Shevi Amadi, director of the Youth Advancement Division of the Jerusalem Municipality, explained that the lack of clarity is due to the fact that there are various types of detachment points along this single, dangerous continuum. "Some have secretly dropped out of school, others completely dropped out. Some lost touch with their parents, others are homeless and live in squats," he explained, "but all of them are viewed as youths at risk."
Their number is hard to estimate
Amadi, who has been working with disconnected youths since 1972, said the phenomenon is only expanding. "My division handles all kinds of cases," he stressed, "but even though we are consistent, we cannot end this." In 1991, the division handled some 1,200 boys and girls. In 1997, its employees already took care of 3,000.
Presently, some 7,000 adolescents in the city fall under its care. The numbers keep rising, even though numerous associations were established, supporting the city unit, over the past decade. Bodies such as Hameshulash, Hezroni's Squat, or The Zone - all located around Zion Square - sprang up over the past eight years.
The situation in Jerusalem is not extreme on a nationwide scale. The Elem Association estimates the number of "wandering" youths in Israel at 30,000 - a 10 percent rise from 2005. This figure includes an estimated 10,000 adolescent boys and girls who live on the streets of Israel. Another troubling piece of data is the sharp, 50 percent rise in the number of girls at risk when compared with 2004.
Incidentally, despite repeated calls, the Ministry of Social Welfare refused to give Ynet its estimates concerning the scope of the phenomenon.
Some 160 Jerusalem youths are currently at the last point of detachment - the one that comes after dropping out of school and running away from home - and are defined as "street dwellers". City officials cannot give a precise figure, admitting they have limited resources.
"We have mixed up our brains and heart," said Yigal Goldstein, director general of the "Hameshulash," operator of a dormitory project. "I believe that several dozens are actually homeless, while others come and go in and out of various frameworks. At the same time, we have to understand that the youths are making their choices."
Goldstein cited the case of a boy dubbed King of the Square. "His mother lives in town; he has a wonderful home and a great family. Why does he not live there?" he wondered out loud. "It is because the situation there is complicated and the bottom line is that he made his choice."
The city currently runs two transition apartments for the youths in Jerusalem, and will soon open a third transition apartment for drug abusers. "Homeless youths require special treatment," Amadi explained. "Many of them are ill and practice survival techniques that weaken them. They collect wedding leftovers, or beg on the streets, while some make money in prostitution."
Another option in Jerusalem is the Galgal Project of the Elem association and a hostel for the homeless, operated by the Hameshulash Association.
'Parents no longer hug their children'
Moshe Alfi, director of the film "Naf - A Street Boy," has been watching this phenomenon for the past two years. He focuses on the fact that the system despairs with the youths. "Those who look after them experience a serious dilemma: on the one hand, they are begging for help; on the other, they bite every hand that feeds them," he explained.
Alfi became acquainted with the situation on the city streets after his daughter's experiences. He concluded that parents are often to blame. "Currently, human contacts between people, between parents and their children, have changed. Parents no longer hug their children and are not aware of what happens to them," he protested.
Efrat (16), who left her parents' house a few months ago, agreed. "Before I came here, I was on a boarding school in the north. Now, I am like this, moving around." She would not elaborate, but later, curling in a corner of the Hameshulash home, chain-smoking, she shyly related the reasons she left home. "My parents minded their own business, hardly talked to me, and rarely took notice of me. I felt bad there, so I decided to go." Did the parents try to reestablish ties? "They tried a little at first," she said, "but eventually gave up. Recently, I initiated contact with them. It was important for me not to lose touch completely."
"Yes, I am not a child anymore, but am I an adult? I need someone to look after me and give me a home," said D (20) who spent the past three years living in deserted houses in Jerusalem. He said he would love to go back to his parents' house in the Neve Ya'akov Neighborhood, claiming they do not know how he lives.
"My mother contacts me every now and then, but I cannot go back home because of my relations with my dad," he said.
In the summer, the squat where he lives serves as a home for groups of boys and girls. "The youngest are 13, those who still think it is cool to run away from home," D said. "If you saw them, you would not believe they live on the streets. They are such good kids."