It’s a Sunday in May and parishioners of a church in central Bucharest huddle in the shadows on the sidewalks that lead them home. Some cast a fleeting glance through the bars of a rusted fence, but quickly avert their eyes with disgust. From between two thick blankets emerge a deeply scarred forearm and a half a face, wrinkled by the blanket’s folds. It’s Cristina, a girl who has spent more than half of her 31 years on the streets.
Passers-by step barely an inch from her head, which is burrowed deep in the thick and soiled blanket, behind the fence. She’s sleeping in the shade, in a yard overgrown with wild greenery. Thickets have sprouted among piles of rubble, broken computer monitors, pieces of cardboard, casseroles with rotten food and shit. There are small syringes here and there, the type diabetics use for their insulin shots.
The house is a wreck. It no longer has any windows or doors, the plaster is ruined, and the hardwood floors have been used as kindling for fire by other hobos. Replacing the hardwood floors are fallen bits of the ceiling, broken glass and garbage. Still, the house sheltered her from the snow and the cold.
Since the weather warmed up, Cristina has taken to sleeping in a small park, with Caragiale’s statue looking over her, but last night someone scolded her for it, so she came back here. Her clothes are soiled by grime, heavy perspiration, urine and faeces. While lying down, she catches onto a branch to stretch her bones and muscles. She keeps her eyes half-closed, to shield them from the sun, and starts rummaging through a bag. Her hands are small and swollen, like surgical gloves filled with air. She pulls out a hair trimmer, a keychain, a pair of underwear. She found all of them in dumpsters or trashcans. She manages to find the half a cigarette she was searching for, and lights it, holding it where some of her teeth used to be.
Inside the house, in a big room with a distinct dumpster smell, Sasu is sleeping. He’s Cristina’s husband. A few blankets serve as both door and window. They allow a bit of light to creep through. He doesn’t want to get up. Since he found out he’s HIV positive, about a week ago, he’s become apathetic, sleeping well into the afternoon. He only went to the hospital after spending 3 weeks without eating any food. He lived on water alone.
His hospital discharge sheet has a substantial list of diagnoses: HIV, chronic hepatitis and pneumonia. His gums and lips are frayed by stomatitis and he’s on the verge of cirrhosis. He’s waiting to die. The doctor advised him to stop taking the ‘legal’ drugs, ethnobotanics, but just last night he was at the train station, with Bruce Lee. He shot 10 euros worth of ethnobotanics, straight into a vein in his neck. Cristina keeps scolding him, but somehow more for her sake. ‘Keep sleeping, fuck you! Don’t do anything else!’ She leaves Sasu in bed, fastens her pants with a belt and jumps over the fence, into the street. She’s off to find some food.
Cristina is 31 years old and has been living entirely on the streets since she was 18. You’d think she was a boy. She walks bandy-legged, with her pants hanging low, like rappers used to wear them. She has a vagrant’s swagger she wants to intimidate with. Whenever she sees a Good Samaritan, she drops the act and runs to them like a puppy to ask for something. She doesn’t hold out her hand. She always keeps her hands behind her back and hops from one foot to another. Most of the time she wears a baseball cap, with her head tilted back slightly, and duct-taped headphones, just listening to the radio and humming incomprehensibly. Her baggy clothes hide any feminine trace. She speaks loudly, with a piercing, pre-teen, but slightly hoarse voice.
Cristina is one of the 5,000 homeless people living in Bucharest, according to estimates made by Samusocial, an international NGO that helps the homeless. They estimate there are around 15,000 people throughout the country who live wherever they can. There are local and national social service programmes geared toward the homeless, but they are far from being functional, because of the bureaucracy and the limited funds. Most homeless people have minimal chances of being reintegrated into society, and a few hundred die, every year, due to disease or the cold weather.
It says Cristina Ionescu on her ID, but she doesn’t have it anymore. Under her mom’s name, it says Elena, and there’s just a dash for her father’s name. She was born on January 17th 1982, in Bucharest, with lung problems. Nobody picked her up from the maternity ward and she ended up in a state placement centre.
Since she learned to walk, she’s been either in a state home, or on the streets. She had to start begging, for the older girls in the home. Once, they drove a nail into her forehead. ‘It was worse in the home than on the streets. They used to send me to walk the streets. If it didn’t make as much as they wanted, I was done for’. Frustrated that she couldn’t fight back – and as no one intervened, Cristina took revenge on her own forearms. She used to take a razor to mark each frustration on her baby skin. Later on, she covered the cuts with tattoos done poorly by glue-sniffers, with bits of melted plastic. In time, though, more cuts ravaged the tattoos as well. The names of her friends from the state home are written almost illegibly: Jirca, Luiza and Mihaela, of whom she knows nothing about anymore.
In 2000, Cristina was the ring leader at the Piata Victoriei subway station. All the glue-sniffers from the central area of Bucharest knew her. She was the only girl who had won the boys’ respect. ‘If you acted like a girl, people treated you like a girl. They’d take you for a fool and take advantage of you. I turned myself into a boy from the get-go. I’d fight anyone, I never backed down’. She protected the younger children from rival hobo gangs and nagged them if they failed to listen to her. She managed the money and the food the kids earned from begging and petty theft.
Two years later, Cristina was a Holywood star. ‘Children Ungerground’, a documentary on homeless children living in the heart of the Romanian capital city, was being nominated for an Oscar. Director Edet Belzberg watched the vagrant, glue-sniffing gang led by Cristina for a year and showed foreigners the violent world in which the abandoned kids struggled for survival. From all the kids at Victoriei, only Cristina is still living on the streets. ‘Rather than in a state home, I’d rather be alone on the streets. I’ve been in the sewers at the train station, under bridges, in the hallways of apartment buildings, in parks, on construction sites, in abandoned houses. I preferred the street more, to be free!’
After she leaves the house, Cristina hits the streets starting with a nearby one. She stops in front of a pub and picks up two plastic crates from a row, put there to keep a few parking spaces unoccupied. She helps a jeep park, directing it into the very tight spot, and then jumps in front of the car, so that it doesn’t hit a thick, new-generation marble bollard, recently put there by the City Hall. The car stops and she goes to open the car door. She asks the driver for one leu or some food, cigarettes, or at least something when he comes back. She only gets a promise. After the negotiation, she heads towards other cars.
She stops to chat with an old woman who’s begging outside the local supermarket. ‘What’s up, old haaag?’ she asks, amused. ‘Gimme a cigarette!’ The old woman is begging on behalf of a family that’s illegally squatting in a house nearby. She’s blind, a source of amusement for Cristina, who waves all kinds of trash under her nose, makes faces at her or cheats her out of cigarettes.
Cristina and Sasu are part-time parking loiterers. They know almost all the car owners in the area. They know who to ask for money, who for food and who for clothes. They also know who to not heed anymore. They ask for money and clothes from patrons of a 24/7 shop and from the parishioners of a church in the area. This all happens in a perimeter between Maria Rosetti, Caragiale, Icoanei and Dărvari Hermitage, all in the central area of Bucharest. Sometimes they test the vanity of the rich. They ask for 10 or 20 Euros straight away, and most of them pay up without asking any questions. ‘We make 20 euros a day, easily. 40, 50’.
‘Hey, lady, gimme a little something. Get me some food, I’m hungry’. They’re not ashamed. Their drug addiction is motivating. When they save up for at least a quarter of a gram of ethnobotanics – a synthetic drug made of different plants, legal until recently – they vacate the area. All the money ends up either in the sewers by the train station, with Bruce Lee – the Hobo King of the Northern Train Station, protector of the girls living on the streets, shaman, drug dealer and provider of an array of other goods, or with some squatters in the Obor area. They get drugs and clothes in exchange for their money.
Sometimes, the cops catch them in the sewers. They have raids to recover items stolen by Bruzli’s gang. In April, Cristina barely made it out of the grip of a face-hooded cop, just after she had shot up. The police were looking for some religious art stolen by Bruce Lee’s guys from an apartment.
Hobos were first mentioned in a law in 2011, according to the Ministry of Labour, and are defined as a ‘social category consisting of individuals or families who, for singular or multiple social, medical, financial, economic, judicial reasons or because of force majeure situations, live on the streets, live temporarily with friends or acquaintances, are incapable of sustaining a rental agreement or are risking eviction, are institutionalised or in the penitentiary system from which they will be discharged or released in 2 months’ time, and they do not have a domicile or residence’.
The laws provide a series of actions for limiting the negative effects of rough sleeping and for socially reintegrating the homeless. Regional shelters have been instituted, along with professional training and social reinsertion programmes. Progress has also been made regarding the integration of abandoned children after coming of age, by providing them with social housing.
Many of the state’s actions, however, exist only on paper. The social protection programmes work for only a limited number of beneficiaries and the number of people who recuperate is minuscule. Besides, the official data is completely out of touch with reality.
Samusocial alone has 4,400 beneficiaries registered in Bucharest, while the General Social Assistance Directorate mentions 3,098 homeless people throughout the entire country, according to a census conducted in 2011, with only 79,3% of City Halls participating.
Insufficient funding, the lack of employment opportunities, excessive bureaucracy and the harsh legislation are the things that slow down or completely bar the homeless peoples’ access to protection and social and professional reintegration services, says Alina Neagu, a social services assistant with Samusocial. ‘Most of the state aid is geared towards the middle-class’, and there is little intervention from state authorities for the lower class.
‘Without these organisations, people wouldn’t be able to compile their application folders, necessary for them to benefit from certain rights, certain social services’, says Neagu. The staff of organisations such as Samusocial prepares the files, accompanies the beneficiaries to the institutions which must issue them documents, draws up a history of the person, ticking the bureaucratic boxes required by law to access aid (a lot of the homeless people in Bucharest are from outside of town and do not qualify for state aid if they lack the proper documentation).
One out of 20 homeless people in the Capital comes from a state orphanage, like Sasu and Cristina. Almost half of the homeless are divorced men. The lack of housing is, in most cases, doubled by alcohol addiction. Another 20% of the homeless are victims of the results of the property retrocession suits filed after 1989, or of real estate fraud. The others are former inmates with nowhere to go after they’ve been released, people with mental issues or drug addicts.
Most survive by collecting recyclable trash, day and seasonal labouring or begging. There is also a small part that lives off petty theft.
Cristina has three children: two boys, aged 11 and 8, and a 7-year old girl. She entrusted the boys to a women in a nearby city, Ploiesti, and the girl lives in social housing in Bucharest’s Berceni neighbourhood, along with other children from broken families, under the supervision of social workers. Cristina sees her from time to time, when she doesn’t forget about the meetings, at the city’s Second District Social Services Directorate, somewhere around Izvorul Rece. She brings her daughter candy or money.
She’s always late to the scheduled meetings and she’s upset that the social workers take the girl home at the established hours. She would like to, someday, reunite her family. ‘You think I pushed out 3 kids just for fun? You liked makin’em, now raise’em!’
She would never take them on the streets with her. Only the thought pisses her off to no end. She wouldn’t want them to go through what she has. Last year, she took a couple of narcs into the abandoned house. The woman was pregnant and was shooting methadone around the clock. After she gave birth, she wanted to bring the baby with her from the hospital. ‘I told her that if she messes with the kid, I’ll call the cops and child services, and then beat the shit out of her!’
Life on the streets is not just about scavenging for food and striving to find shelter. It is a semi-nomadic life. Cristina and Sasu are always looking for a safer place. Competition for abandoned houses is tough. They have been living in the city centre for about two years. Before that, they were living on Soseaua Iancului, a large street in Bucharest, near a 24/7 shop where Sasu used to work. The shop’s owner took out a loan in Sasu’s name, but didn’t give him any of the money. Afterwards, they stayed in a run-down house owned by the City Hall, with a rusted plate that reads ‘Romanian Republican Party’. Cristina sometimes goes by the old place and steals stuff from the new inhabitants. It’s her way of getting back at them for setting her clothes on fire.
The couple is always on the cops’ and riot police’s radar. They’re checked regularly, almost every night. As soon as something goes down in the neighbourhood, they get questioned. The national police force doesn’t bother with them, but the local cops constantly harass them. The two claim that the City Hall’s police forces take them into the woods on the city’s outskirts, beat them up and leave them there, forcing them to walk back to into the city on foot. Just last winter, they threw Sasu into the Dambovita River that runs through Bucharest.
Besides, the local police forces are fighting a lopsided battle with the homeless from the city’s central area, the latter smudging the city’s aesthetic. Almost on a daily basis, they are taken and moved to different areas of the city. I myself have witnessed two police force interventions, and both times they told me that nearby inhabitants had submitted complaints. Răzvan Popa, the Bucharest Police’s Chief of Image and Communications told me, in an e-mail, that ‘The Local Police of the Municipality of Bucharest has not, does not and will not ever resort to such practices that are present only in the stories of the people you have been in contact with’.
Winter is an agony for the homeless. They cannot find any labour, and their housing options are limited. In Bucharest, there are 6 social shelters that can house 310 people and an emergency night shelter that can take 600 in, which is only open during winter, on Pallady Boulevard, near the highway that leads to the seaside. Starting with this year, this centre will become a permanent shelter for homeless people who have a pension and can pay a small monthly fee for accommodation and meals.
In any case, most of the homeless tend to avoid going to these shelters because of their remote locations, the crowded rooms and the poor conditions. Couples must live in separate quarters, if they want shelter, so most prefer to just pile on all their clothing and hide under blankets in apartment block hallways or abandoned houses.
‘Neaaah, I’m not going to that dump. All those fuckers might rob me’, laughs Cristina. The shelters are poorly manned and the caretakers advise the homeless to hand over their belongings in order to avoid any unpleasant issues. .
Cristina doesn’t over-dramatize the winters. She’s weathered worse, she’s gotten used to it. She actually enjoys the March snow. It hasn’t snowed much in Bucharest this year. She uncovers the cars buried deep under piles of frozen snow or shovels a yard here and there. Her feet are wet all day long and her hands are cracked due to the cold, but it brings money. Sasu and Cristina argue a few times before getting the job done. They have trouble deciding who’s going to shovel, who’s going to put their hand out for a reward?
– Fuck off, toothy, are you mad?
– Leave me the fuck alone!, Sasu answers back. Cristina runs toward him, hugs him and spins him a couple of times, big as he is, and then throws him down into the snow they have to shovel. She then starts laughing like a child.
The City Hall and the NGOs have mobile emergency units that distribute food, hot tea and blankets, to limit the number of deaths caused by frost. In 2012, mayor Sorin Oprescu was bragging how not one homeless person died, due to the emergency shelters set up by the local administration, but no one has put forward any data to support this.
The National Forensics Institute registered 184 deaths of unclaimed or unidentified people last year, but lacking a proper monitoring tool, it cannot be established how many of them were homeless.
The social workers that distribute aid know them. They know they do drugs and only give them food. Cristina didn’t receive a sleeping bag. She would have sold it for drugs, a social worker tells me.
Cristina and Sasu get off the 133 bus outside the Northern Train Station and pass by a manhole where only a hand punctured by a needle is visible. They cross the street and go into a small park facing the train station, where a few vagrants are inhaling chemicals from plastic bags. Then, they disappear through a hole in the ground.
A well-dressed gentleman brings 2 bags of clothes and tries to hand them over a small fence. Two of the glue-sniffers dart off towards him immediately and start arguing, trying to get a hold of at least one bag. They tear the plastic, gather everything off the ground and slither into the sewers themselves.
A few minutes later, Cristina and Sasu emerge from under the city with a tiny paper packet. They go behind a building, a sort of abandoned warehouse, and start preparing their dose. They put a little water into the syringe, pull some tendrils of white powder from the packet, mix it with the water and start tapping their veins.
Cristina’s carotid artery, riddled with needle marks, bulges when she tilts her head back. Sasu pushed the needle in, draws some blood, to make sure he’s hit the right spot, and then pushes the whole mix in. Then he drops his pants, pulls up his shirt and shoots the rest into his abdomen. After a minute, they both become quiet. Their eyes sparkle and they just sit there looking at the sky, with expressionless faces. They seem sleepy. They snap out of it a little and head to get more of the powder. They have 2 Euros left.
In the ‘Children Underground’ documentary, Cristina was saying that she wants someone to stand by her. She was 17 at the time and had just started doing heroin. She fell in love with a boy, with whom she had her three children. Then he left her. He’s no longer living on the streets. He never asks about the children, either.
She doesn’t remember exactly when she met Sasu. He was on the streets since he was just 7 years old, but he was weaker, more vulnerable. She calls him ‘Ionela’ or ‘wife’ as pet names, and always looks after him. She takes on police agents to give him time to run away, but also violent hobos who try to steal their food. In turn, Sasu pampers her. He wakes up in the middle of the night to make her sandwiches. When they eat, they share almost every morsel of food. They sometimes smack each other over the head when one of them snatches the other’s favourite bit.
They usually have their meals near a restaurant across the street from the Dărvari Hermitage. A woman gives them home cooked meals from time to time. They eat on the street, with their hands, sitting on the sidewalk. ‘Hey, wife, you take this one, it’s good for you, ‘cause you’re sick’. At the end of the meal, they put all the leftovers in a casserole and mix them with a little bread. They want to find a dog to feed, to not throw away what’s left.
They fell in love and then got married, 4 years ago, at the city’s Second District City Hall. Back then, they were staying in Buftea, outside Bucharest, in a trailer. They worked in constructions, for a boss who was building some villas. When the project was done, they were out on the streets again. They couldn’t find any other work, so they turned to drugs.
Repeatedly using the same syringe, between more people, sentences the drug addicts to diseases such as hepatitis or HIV. There are organisations such as the Romanian Anti-Aids Association, which distributes free syringes and condoms. Similar services were offered by Samusocial as well, but the financial crisis forced them to cut down the budget destined for the drug addicts.
Cristina and Sasu both have hepatitis C. Apart from that, Sasu is also HIV positive and things aren’t looking well. A bout of pneumonia gave him some trouble as well. On top of all this, he’s now in a horrible state of depression that is making him refuse food. His body is frayed with pain. He’s pale and decrepit, like a picket fence with battered planks. When the ambulance came, he threw a fit and refused to be committed into their care. The medical nurse swore at him because he made the trip for nothing, and didn’t give him anything. ‘Go on, you idiot! Wanna die here? Fuck you, you’re not even eating anything!’ Cristina scolded him in front of the ambulance staff. ‘I’m begging you to eat something and you’re making a scene, and not even going to the hospital!’
Cristina is disappointed and can’t even stand being near her obstinate husband. Sasu doesn’t want to go to the hospital by himself. He’s got it into his head that while he’s suffering, Cristina is cheating on him with Bruzli. ‘The guy calls you a whore and you just sit there like an idiot. I’ve brought you millions and you go and fuck that guy!’ He’s straining himself to yell, but doesn’t have enough strength. Cristina smacks him over the head and cusses at him. The ambulance drives away.
People who are HIV positive are entitled to a food allowance of roughly 90 euros/month and free healthcare from the state. To access, this however, the potential beneficiary has to put together a file, based on their ID and medical chart. Most homeless people, however, have no documentation. Samusocial helps the beneficiaries obtain the documents for pensions and different types of aid.
The legislation, however, hinders these actions as well. Only those whose last ID was a Bucharest-issued one can be helped by the NGO to reclaim their identity. The others have to go to the last place where they had an official domicile, or be legally taken into the domicile of someone living in the Capital. It’s only during electoral campaigns that the local state authorities loosen the bureaucracy and gift everyone with Bucharest IDs.
Sasu’s last ID was from Popesti-Leordeni, outside Bucharest. His documents remained with his last boss, in Buftea, and he doesn’t know what to do now. He says he can’t get there and that no one will take him into their domicile on paper. He’s hoping for a helping hand, and meanwhile the days in which he isn’t receiving the proper treatment are adding up. Cristina has an ID with a Bucharest address as her domicile, but it got left behind in the purse of the lady who took her in on paper, a lady who has since left the country, she says.
State authorities face difficulties in finding solutions to reduce the number of homeless people. Be they war veterans, people with mental disabilities, members of broken families or drug addicts, the long term policies instituted by the state authorities have been shallow or far removed from the reality that people face every day.
The European Union doesn’t have a very clear strategy for improving the situation, either. Most of the actions, just as in Romania, are focused on offering immediate aid, like temporary shelters and food, but are not able to ensure the rehabilitation of the beneficiaries and their ascension to a level that would allow them to re-enter society.
Finland is an example of good practice regarding social services. The government has managed, in 20 years, to reduce the number of people without permanent shelter to a quarter of their initial number, with policies implemented from the mid-80s. The number has dropped to 4,000 nationwide, out of which only 400 live in the streets on a permanent basis.
In 2007, the Finnish state authorities started a programme that aims to eradicate the phenomenon by 2015. Besides long term accommodation, the Finnish programme also provides rehabilitation actions aimed at individuals – psychological counselling, alcohol and drug detoxification, education, professional training and supervision, with permanent monitoring at each level.
Finland has spent over 40 million euros between 2008 and 2011 for the construction of housing and sustainment of the integration programmes, while also offering subsidies of 50% to organisations that provide some outsourced services. Another 2.5 million were invested in housing for former inmates. As a prevention measure, the Finnish state ran a programme of social housing for the youth, partnering with local administrations, churches, organisations and private companies.
Romania has spent around 4 million euros during the last six years to build 33 social services centres throughout the country, which can take in 1556 people, according to a document received from the Ministry of Labour. The investment in materials and equipment was not correlated with investment in professionals and people with a calling in this domain, people who would have brought added value to the newly-raised institutions. Unfortunately, the person from the Ministry that is in charge of this area is not available for an interview, as I was informed by the Ministry’s press office.
Cristina doesn’t see reconciliation with society possible, either. She wishes she’d find a workplace and housing, but, just as the state authorities that don’t lend a hand, she is also often out of touch with reality, because of the drugs. She admits she’s self-destructing, but ‘when you shoot up, you calm down, you forget about this world, you’re not hungry anymore’.
Cristina’s dream to get her children back from the care of others and to raise them with Sasu in a normal home, with normal-peoples salaries, is placed high on a pedestal. She needs a ladder to touch the dream, but ladders are not easy to come by and they’re expensive. If she had a ladder, she’d sell it for drugs.
She smiles every time she thinks about her children and the life they might have someday. Sasu is resigned. ‘If I’m gonna die, at least I’m gonna feel good’. He isn’t getting treatment, he’s eating poorly and he keeps doing drugs. ‘And if he dies, what am I gonna do without him? I don’t know what I’ll do without him’.
Read more feature stories from us: Casa Journalist in English.