Police Raid on Canal that housed the homeless in Bucharest, Romania

My initial response to VICE’s headline “Romania’s ‘Sewer People’ Have Been Raided by Police” was of slight disgust, with a feeling of dread in my stomach as I opened the link. This is a topic that is close to my heart; I lived in Romania for seven years, seeing these people on an almost daily basis when travelling across the city. They intrigued me so much that last year I did my MA research with them. I was working with a charity that strives to help the people by supporting them, taking off from where they are. Many of the people live, have lived, or know someone that lives or has lived in the canal this article writes about. Every time I see an article regarding this topic (such as this, this, or even this) I wonder who’s picture I am going to see; whether it’s of them smiling, crying, or using. It all depends on the kind of image the article is trying to portray. What’s often forgotten is that these are people. PEOPLE. They have dreams and hopes and emotions, and experiences that shape them, that make them who they are: a multi-faceted human being that is more than just one of the ‘sewer people’.

I’ve written before about the canal that was recently raided by the police here, here, and here and have experienced the heat that is down there first hand. I’ve seen the dilated pupils and syringes lying around and sticking out of peoples’ bodies. What I also saw was friendship, laughter, tears, and community. People spending their last dime on their pet dogs and cats rather than buying food for themselves. Sharing the little that they have with their street family, because that’s all they have, yet the media demonises them for their lives.

This article made me cringe, not from the way it was written, but from it’s content.

They even say that arresting the “suspected ringleader” Bruce Lee is “likely to do little for the Bucharest’s people of the tunnels”. Yes, he is the ringleader, yes he is probably part of a drug selling ring, but he’s also a father to many of the children living in the sewer. He makes sure people get money for medicine and food; shares water and other materials. I’m not saying he shouldn’t be arrested, I’m sure there’s reason for his arrest, but it all could have been thought out a bit better…Where are all the people going to go?

Dan Popescu, the leader of Aras (a needle exchange programme in Bucharest), makes some very excellent points when asked what difference the arrest of Bruce Lee will make.

  • Bucharest’s homeless shelters don’t have capacity to take on 70-80 more people.
  • Drug addicts will go through withdrawal in the next couple of days without drugs.
  • They will migrate to other areas of the city to get these drugs causing the problem that was more or less confined to the Gara de Nord to spread across the whole city.
  • The arrest should have been more carefully planned and thought through.

I also found this article about the same story through Channel4. First, I’d like to say: well done on getting the house built! It’s not really a ‘shack’ and is actually  more like a bottom-up homeless shelter…but you know whatever. I remember there being talk about building this when I was there last year, so it’s great to hear that they got the house built. It’s sad that they achieved all of this just to see it being raided by the police.

Although the way Bucharest’s people experiencing homelessness are portrayed in the media generally make me angry, statements such as “The tunnels were a destination for people looking to buy synthetic heroin substitutes and to inhale the fumes of a metallic paint called aurolac” really piss me off. That’s not all the tunnels are! Could people at least attempt to see things from a different perspective?!

“Bruce Lee may be imprisoned – but another gang lord was bound to take his place.” Well, yes. Well done on imprisoning the guy that actually made life on the streets of Bucharest more bearable for many. Well done on letting the time from before him come back when there was a constant battle for who would be the leader, the person in charge.

All in all, this could have all been thought out a bit better. Announcing the raid to the media and then having the police and gendarmerie showing up in large numbers to arrest the drug dealers wasn’t necessarily the best way of going about this problem. But at least this means the state acknowledges that this population exists, and that they’re at least trying to have an impact…let’s just think of the people the next time we do that, shall we?