Warning: The following article may offend some readers’ sensibilities, but I feel that the endeavor reported herein should be publicized, because the items requested at the end are ones that most of us have and can spare, and donating to this cause is so easy. Readers outside Israel: There’s likely a similar program in your community.
The article also reminded me of a conscious decision that I’ve made to give to beggers―yes, even if they’ll end up using my money for a fix. My not giving them money won’t cure their addiction, and at that moment, this is what they do. If they need that fix―as repugnant as the whole street drug industry is―I’d like to alleviate their suffering.
It’s the social welfare agencies’ job to try to bring them services and hopefully get them into rehab. But as a layperson without those resources, here in real time, I’d rather get the sufferer what s/he immediately needs. I can’t judge why s/he’s in this predicament or how s/he got here, but s/he’s here, and I’m here, face to face with it; I won’t turn my back.
Hebrew link: עברית
From Haaretz English edition, Monday March 31, 2008 [edited by me]
Human Dignity Once a Week
By Vered Lee
Galit really wants to attend. The Health Ministry vehicle is parked across from Tel Aviv's old bus station on 1 Finn Street, and two workers from the Revi'i Nashi ["Women’s Wednesdays"] project are looking for female addicts who work as prostitutes. The Health Ministry workers want to bring the street workers to the nearby center operated by the Anti-Drug Authority, where they’ll get a chance to shower, eat a hot meal, get clean clothing, and counseling. "I want to come with you, but first I have to get over my withdrawals," says Galit, her body writhing in pain and sweat. "I won't make it," she mumbles. Twenty minutes later, she can be seen on the street looking for clients. It appears as if she’s handcuffed to the dealer who gave her a fix, and who waits next to her for her to pay him.
It’s noon in the old Tel Aviv bus station, where some 250 to 300 female addicts work as prostitutes; business is bustling. Daylight reveals all: the open trade, the injections, the crack smoking, the customers who arrive in cars, and the tottering addicts who peddle sex.
The two women who run Revi'i Nashi are Rani Halabi, Field Coordinator for the Levinsky Clinic, located near the bus station; and Sara Boano de Mesquita, a social worker; the two continue rounding up the addicts. They circle the building at 1 Finn Street, go into the brothels whose entrances are at street level but end up on a dark, lower floor, survey the alleyways where the addicts are strewn on the ground in a daze, and stop beside each woman, address her by name, and embrace her, without being put off by bleeding wounds and the festering abscesses. "Rani, look, I think a rat bit me while I was asleep," says one addict, revealing her wounded leg and asking about further treatment.
In the Finn Street building, Halabi and de Mesquita invite 29-year-old Na'ama, three months pregnant, to join them. Na’ama is contorted and in the midst of withdrawals. After numerous appeals, she agrees to come and gets into the car, writhing in pain. Ya'ara, 29, runs to the vehicle from nearby Erlinger Street, laughing. "I heard you calling my name and looking for me; just then I was with a client," she says. "I rushed him: 'Here comes the Health Ministry wagon. C’mon. Finish,' and he panicked and ran away in the middle. I made a hundred shekels the easy way."
Na'ama loses patience. "I have to get a fix to get over this," she says, trying to get out of the car. "I'll buy you a fix when we come back," Ya'ara promises her. The Health Ministry vehicle makes one last round in an attempt to gather a few more prostitutes.
Undernourished and sleeping out
Revi'i Nashi emerged from the realization of the staff at the Levinsky Clinic, which operates a nighttime mobile clinic for the addict population, that the women in particular suffer from neglect, and their situation requires special treatment.
"These women are homeless," explains Yifat Ben-David, director of the sexual health clinic operating on Levinsky Street. "They sleep on the street, are undernourished. and don't have anything; sometimes even the clothes on their backs are torn. They’re rejected by their families and by society, lonely and exposed to the extreme dangers present on the street. They’re raped and beaten by clients, pimps, and dealers.
"The city [of Tel Aviv] currently has no place where they can sleep and have a break from the street, if only for a few hours, and that can provide them with basics such as food, a shower, and a bed, whereas for male addicts there are centers that provide such services." WW operates in collaboration with Avner Cabel, coordinator of the Levinsky Project, for the Anti-Drug Authority, which operates a center to assist addicts in the area. The Anti-Drug Authority enables the WW team to use some of the center's rooms.
"We noticed that on the street, the girls don't feel comfortable talking to us because of their fear of the dealers and pimps," says Halabi. "We wanted to give them the chance, at least once a week, to get a little attention, to experience warmth and support, and connect them to basic human needs."
According to Halabi, WW's goal is to provide the women with preliminary rehab, "but more than anything else, WW is meant to tell them that we know them by name and see them as individuals."
"Women engaged in street prostitution are neglected," says de Mesquita. "Thy who have no faith in the welfare institutions or in the community. They may even feel that they don't even deserve help. They’re disappointed, hurt, and afraid to accept treatment or help. If a social worker approaches them on the street, from a nonjudgmental place and out of a desire to help, she can bring them back into the circle of communal services."
13 out of 83 referred to rehab
So far 83 women have participated in WW, 13 of whom were referred for immediate free rehab treatment with the Anti-Drug Authority, and half of whom are now in some rehabilitative program. Each week, five or six women on average are served by WW. "Our goal is for WW to operate on a daily basis," stresses Ben-David, "not just once a week, so the female addicts will be able to have a hot meal and a shower every day."
The addicts exit the Health Ministry van and enter the building. Upon their arrival, a hot meal awaits them, which they eat with gusto. Their hunger is apparent. After the meal, the support group starts, led by Cabel, joined by de Mesquita and Halabi.
”Would you like to share with us what's been going on with you?” Cabel asks the pregnant Na'ama, who nods restlessly and bursts into tears. "I feel bad. I want rehab," she says.
Cabel: "So far you've been in rehab three times. Let's go through why it didn't work, so you can understand the weak points and succeed next time."
Na'ama: "My weak point is in jail right now."
Cabel: "What do you mean?"
Na'ama: "My partner’s there. From the day he left, everything got harder."
Cabel: "I'm going to ask you and you don't have to answer: We're talking about the one who beat you and took your money?"
Na'ama: "He beat me, yeah, but he didn't take my money; he didn't want me to work [in prostitution]. Every time I was in rehab, I ran back to him."
Cabel: "When you're in rehab, you forget the suffering and the violence and the hell of living here, and you run back. I'm touching on this because it may happen again in rehab, if you don't grasp that you're running away from the emotional struggle that rehab floods you with."
"The main issue that comes up in the support group is motherhood," says de Mesquita. "There’s a huge sadness―nearly every woman talks about it―about failure and guilt of having her kids taken away from her and how will she be able to get them back. They talk also about the rapes they suffer on the street, the violence, the wish to die, the daily fear of street prostitution and of their low self-image of feeling scorned and sub-human because of their work.
“It's important for us to bring them in and encourage them, and not to have them come out of the support group more exposed and vulnerable," notes Cabel. "The goal is to instill hope, to let them back onto the street with inner faith that they can change their fate, that there is somewhere that accepts them as they are."
Toward the end of the meeting, the Levinsky Clinic staff relates that the incidence of sexual diseases in the neighborhood has been on the rise recently, and they ask the women to exercise caution and use condoms.
"I’ll you what's been happening lately," says one prostitute. "New girls show up who are willing to have sex for five or ten shekels, and offer the works for twenty, without a condom. So when I ask a client for fifty for a blow job with a condom, he laughs and says he can get it for less without a condom."
The drop in prices stuns the staff. "We know there’s competition and a fight for survival and that you need your fix, but try to protect yourselves. If the client refuses to use a condom, put it on your tongue and don’t swallow," they tell the women.
Halabi and de Mesquita part from the women with a warm embrace. "It's sad that the women who power the sex industry and provide services to men 24/7 are so thirsty for a hug and basic human contact," says Halabi. "In the past when we hugged them, they’d be put off and feel uncomfortable and ask, ‘What? You're not disgusted?’ Now they run up to us on their own and hug us.”
Back the prostitutes go to their turf. Ya'ara wants to buy a fix for Na'ama, but the dose isn't strong enough to ease the withdrawal. Na'ama collapses on the bed in her room, stamps her foot, and vomits. "Maybe I'll get an abortion," she says suddenly, as the WW women search for documents in her room so they can transfer her to rehab.
Meantime, other addicts spot the WW women and run up to hug them. "We forgot that today’s Wednesday," they say, disappointed. "Too bad we missed it. Do you have any food left?"
To donate food, clothing, shoes, underwear, makeup, and feminine hygiene products, contact yifat.benDavid@lbr.health.gov.il.