Meet the homeless woman who lives at the Western Wall
Orly Vilnai • Ha'aretz
Every night, when most families are getting ready for a warm night's sleep, they arrive at the plaza in front of the Western Wall and find a spot next to the stairs, near to the men's section. At three in the morning, they move over to the tunnel, which is open between 3 A.M. and 8 A.M. There it is not so cold; there they can sleep.
At 8 A.M., they get up, wash their faces and take a bus, and then another bus, until they reach the Housing and Construction Minister's bureau in the center of Jerusalem. That is where they remain for the rest of the day, at the foot of the building. They don't shout and they don't provoke anyone, they merely sit there. A woman and her child, alone. Just so that they should see them, those important people who work in the building, and not forget them.
Annetta (not her real name) and her 13-year-old son have been living in the street now for a month and a half. There is not a soul in the Housing Ministry who is not familiar with their story. There is not a soul who does not feel for them. But still there is no one who will end this.
Annetta does not have the typical profile of a homeless person. She is a strong woman who has worked all her life and raised three children alone. For the past two years, she has been working full-time as a rehabilitation nurse in a private hospital in the Sharon region. She is so well-liked and appreciated that her bosses at work are keeping the job open for her until she manages to arrange housing. They know she is currently living in the street and that it is not clear when this will end, but still they are waiting for her. Were it not for the beatings, she would surely be a success story today.
He always came back
It all began when she turned 15. The daughter of ultra-Orthodox parents who had immigrated from the former Soviet Union, she was forced to marry, and the beatings started immediately after that. He would punch her, hit her with shoes, pots, a carpet beater and anything he could lay hands on; he would extinguish cigarettes on all parts of her body. This is how her pregnancy passed, and the birth, and almost two years. From time to time, the police would come and take him away, but he would always return and break everything in his path.
One day she picked up the boy and left, filled with hope that she could start a new life. She received a divorce and began working as a caregiver on a kibbutz. One of her co-workers introduced her to her brother. He was 20 years older than her, and looked like a man who would help raise her son without making problems. After the scars of the past, she insisted on drawing up a written financial agreement with a lawyer before they were married. However, very soon, life once again became hell.
He was jealous of her and began imposing a reign of terror. It did not improve even when she bore him their first joint child, or when, shortly after that birth, he once again made her pregnant. Everyone surrounding them kept insisting they should make peace, but Annetta decided to leave. In the midst of her pregnancy and with two children, she once again sought a new life. However, her husband found her and asked that they make up. In the argument that ensued, he turned violent and hit her in the stomach; she was rushed to hospital in her 27th week with a fetus in distress.
A short while later, the baby was born, in serious condition. The doctors diagnosed cerebral palsy and a cleft palate. This meant repeated hospitalizations. Annetta was beside herself: An injured woman alone with a defective baby and two small children at home, the oldest of whom was five. She started missing more and more days of work, the older children did not get enough attention, the problems increased and her income dwindled.
The Housing Ministry assisted her with a third-floor public-housing apartment in Karkur, without an elevator, next to the cemetery. According to the rules, a handicapped person is supposed to get public housing on the ground floor or an apartment that is accessible to him, but two and a half years of suffering passed until the ministry found a dilapidated apartment on the ground floor in the Beit Eliezer quarter of Hadera.
Annetta immediately signed the contract, but then the little boy's condition began deteriorating. He was hospitalized but died before he was 3 years old. She relates that that very same day, they called to inform her that she would not get the ground floor apartment because the handicapped toddler had died.
Since then, eight years have elapsed and the family's condition continues to deteriorate. The children dropped out of school and she had to change jobs frequently, and began working as a cleaner to supplement her income. The younger child was diagnosed with epilepsy and Annetta left her job and took on more cleaning work so that she would be close by. She realized they needed a change. Life next to the cemetery was also not good for them and she wanted to move.
She once again approached the Housing Ministry. She says they offered her rent support of NIS 1,250, which they would pay when she signed a contract. She brought her contract but they disregarded it for half a year and then approved a mere NIS 436 per month. And once again there were debts, and once again she could not bear the burden. A proud, hardworking woman who never asked for food baskets and donations, but now she feels she cannot go on any longer.
"This is how it was all the time and it never ended; this is how I managed to go on, to work and to keep the children," she says. "But after four years, I felt I couldn't continue. My mother had taken every loan possible and we still hadn't paid our rent. I understood that was the end."
A sensitive minister
Annetta began knocking on the doors of the various government ministries. Vered Swid, the prime minister's adviser on social affairs, helped her, and in August she began receiving the full NIS 1,250. But the debts had already piled up. On December 17, she put her eldest son into a boarding school but took the younger one with her, and the two of them found a spot outside the Housing Ministry in Jerusalem.
The minister of Construction and Housing, Ariel Atias [Shas Party – Sefardi haredi], is a very sensitive person and knows how to act. His personal assistant, Daniel Gabbai, sat with Annetta and checked the options. The only possibility is a public-housing apartment in Safed or Mitzpeh Ramon. Annetta has a job in the Sharon region and her children go to school there. She has an elderly mother living in a one-room apartment in Karkur, and they help one another. She is not refusing to do things, but she knows that if she moves to Safed or Mitzpeh Ramon, she will lose the little that she achieved.
Officials in the ministry are well aware of the shortage of public housing. They are genuinely trying to do everything to help her, but the supply of apartments makes it impossible. The minister has instructed them to give her any vacant apartment she agrees to live in, but there is nothing available at a reasonable distance from her workplace and her children's schools.
The minister is not responsible for the shortcomings of his predecessors, but he also does not have the wherewithal to correct them. So she is out there in the street. People pass by, make a remark and then continue. Sometimes someone arranges them a hostel room for the night. The Jerusalem municipality's welfare department has paid for extra nights, but that is all.
At the end of the day, she will once again go to the Western Wall to sleep, perhaps because there is constant movement there and security cameras that ensure that no harm will befall them. And perhaps because there are people with hearts of stone and stones with the heart of a human being.