Mathilde Behar has fallen in her bathtub twice in the past few years. Since she was not wearing her emergency call button either time, she had no choice but to yell repeatedly until the housemother heard her, came into her apartment and helped her up.
Behar, 82, cries while she relates the story - because starting next week there will be no housemother at the hostel on the Jaffa-Bat Yam border where she lives; because the Hanukkah party she has been looking forward to will be the last one at the hostel's clubroom; because the oil jugs cut out of colored paper will be the last ones that the residents will make at the crafts club.
From January 1, Keshet - the nonprofit organization run by the Tel Aviv Municipality - will stop providing services to elderly residents in public housing, after 24 years. The Labor and Social Welfare Ministry, which had subsidized Keshet's operations, announced that it would no longer be funding the maintenance of the six hostels.
Five of the six hostels are operated by Halamish, Tel Aviv's public housing company. The Amidar housing company manages the sixth. Nearly 400 people, mostly elderly, some with physical or mental disabilities, live in the hostels. The oldest resident is 94. Some are immigrants who were referred to the hostels by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, while others agreed to move from large apartments in public housing projects because of the social and welfare services promised to them at the hostels.
Farindella Zisholtz, for example, gave up a spacious Bat Yam apartment that Amidar had given to her for lifetime use after she was forced out of her home because developers sought to build high-rise offices. According to her son, attorney Avi Sheinman, who recently began a legal battle on behalf of the residents, one condition of his mother's agreement to move to the hostel was the reception of support services there. Canceling these services, Sheinman wrote in a letter to the heads of Amidar, Halamish and the ministries of housing and welfare, is a violation of the government promise given to his nonagenerian mother.
According to Sheinman's letter, some of the residents will now have to be hospitalized in geriatric centers, which will cost the state much more than funding support services at the hostels.
MK Ran Cohen (Meretz) responded to Sheinman's appeal and is attempting to lobby Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who currently holds the welfare portfolio, on the matter.
"These elderly people are effectively being abandoned to their fate," Cohen said. "Public services to which they are legally entitled ... are being withheld," Cohen wrote.
"It's the most vulnerable population in the country," said Eli Shahar of Halamish. Most have only their old-age allowances and pay NIS 150 per month for rent.
"It's important to understand that there are people who were sent to public housing by the government. Each one was vetted by the Housing Ministry," Shahar said.
Halamish director general Eitan Padan has asked Deputy Social Welfare Minister MK Avraham Ravitz (United Torah Judaism) to find the money to continue providing the services to the hostel residents. Amidar officials said they would attempt to continue providing some of the services to the 115 residents of their hostel in Jaffa, but residents expressed doubt.
According to Keshet Director Dr. Pnina Gutman-Frisch, the cost of the services currently being provided - for a housemother, clubs, monthly visits by a nurse and social worker, cleaning common areas, laundry, pedicures and subsidizing emergency call buttons - comes to about NIS 1.5 million a year.
While in previous years the budget was shared by the absorption and housing ministries, the Tel Aviv municipality and the housing companies, most of that support has been withdrawn. Now the Welfare Ministry is also canceling its support.