While the streets of Israel are mostly empty due to government regulations, in most cities of there are still homeless people on the empty streets who are extremely exposed to the ravages of the coronavirus.
In the city of Bat Yam, a stone's throw from Tel Aviv, the fate of dozens of homeless people is unclear, and while living on the streets even in normal times is brutal, to do so during an epidemic is nothing short of life threatening.
Dr. David Agayev, the founder of the Loft Project to support the homeless, went out onto the streets after receiving reports that many of the city's rough sleepers had simply vanished amid the epidemic.
“The coronavirus is affecting the streets,” says Agayev. At a public park known to host many of homeless people, no one is to be seen.
“During the time of the coronavirus, welfare services are working extra hard to provide solutions for the homeless. There are many who are hospitalized, while those that are not in rehabilitation are looking for isolated places to sleep.”
Agayev has brought a bag full of treats to hand out to the homeless in the park, but worryingly, there are none to be found.
“Many times when you bring the homeless hot food, they also ask for something sweet," he says. "It's important to bring candies that those without teeth can also enjoy, such as lollipops.”
Deeper into the park, Agayev reaches a narrow alley filled with sofas and mattresses. Normally the alley is used as a sort of a hangout for the park’s homeless residents, but during the epidemic, it's all but abandoned.
Sitting on a bench in front of a lonely bodega is Vebba, one of the Bat Yam homeless. Agayev offers Vebba a couple of candies from his bag, and the simple gesture is enough to bring a faint smile to Vebba’s bruised and lacerated face.
“Everybody should be at home right now,” says Vebba. “Only I’m out here on the street. I’m afraid of the coronavirus and it’s hard keeping clean out here, I keep washing my hand in sinks in public toilets.”
Regarding his sleeping arrangements, Vebba says: “It’s not cold, so you can sleep anywhere. Yesterday I slept in Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station, and today I’ll sleep here. Every day I sleep somewhere else.”
The lockdown in Israel has had left Vebba and others like him without a vital source of nutrition.
“Because of the coronavirus, there is no food in the restaurant's dumpsters, so I need to buy hot food with money,” he says.
Vebba says that many of the homeless people in Bat Yam have migrated to Tel Aviv, due to the availability of food, open restaurants, and the solutions offered by welfare services. Vebba, however, prefers to stay on his bench in Bat Yam.
“The street are cleaner and safer," he says. "It’s not good to sleep in close quarters together."
Vebba refuses to explain the marks on his face, only saying that he needs "a new start.”
In front of one of Bat Yam’s pharmacies sits Elvis, who is well known in the city and one of Agayev’s acquaintances.
“The coronavirus is an epidemic, all you need is vodka,” says Elvis, who according to Agayev has refused any kind of medical treatment.
“I’m not afraid of the virus,” says Elvis. “I’m afraid of myself. I live on the streets because I have no choice. This is my home, even if the police and inspectors come, here I will stay.”
Elvis is suddenly wracked by a violent coughing fit, spitting blood on the floor. Agayev explains that due to their harsh way of life, the homeless are exposed to numerous illnesses and infections, and coronavirus is just another nail in the coffin.
Elvis tells Agayev he doesn't know where the rest of Bat Yam’s homeless community has gone, and Agayev continues his search.
He reaches an abandoned derelict building near Bat Yam beach. The building is old and crumbling, but shows clear signs of life within.
In the dim light of flashlight, one can see piles of junk scattered across the building’s first floor, and while the improvised living space seems empty, candle light can be seen flickering in one of the building’s upper floors, along with the silhouette of a man.
“There is a homeless man I know up there,” says Agayev. “He is afraid of the coronavirus, so my advice is to keep clear if he doesn't want company.”
Bat Yam municipality said that under the direction of welfare services, the city has done its best to provide the homeless population with the best care and providing social workers to help them to exercise their rights.
Agayev has a message for anyone who comes into contact with a member of the homeless population during this health crisis.
“First of all, it's important to protect yourself and only then ask whether the person has eaten or drunk anything, or whether they need an ambulance,” says Agayev.
“They can’t take care of themselves so it’s important to see if they need anything. Above all, show them compassion and humanity.”