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?

Homelessness in Montpelier, France

I found out from a Facebook Forum, that Babeth is doing a great project for people experiencing homelessness in Montpelier, France this christmas. I got in contact with her about her project, and this is what she had to say:

Ever since I arrived in Montpellier, I noticed the amount of homeless people in the streets. Every single time I pass them, I feel bad, especially with Christmas coming up. When I see them sitting on the floor, with a paper cup in front of them, begging for money, I can’t help but wonder what they will do with Christmas. Will they be on the streets, begging for food and money? Or will there be a person who provides them with food. So I thought, why not be that person. Why not make this into a project and give those people a Christmas they will never forget.
My goal is to raise at least 500 euro’s, to be able to buy all the nessecary supplies to make great dishes with a few amazing volunteers on the 1st or 2nd day of Christmas in Montpellier center. I’m going to try to convince my boyfriend to let me use his restaurant to be able to prepare for everything with the volunteers.

Why should you help?
With your help, we will be able to give the less fortunate an amazing Christmas with some wonderful food. To provide a light in their already dark days. The more money we raise, the more we will be able to buy and make for them.
Don’t you think that everyone deserves to have a wonderful Christmas? A Christmas that is about peace and sharing? This will be your opportunity to help and make this happen for them.

On my blog I will keep everyone updated, about the entire progress, the funds and ofcourse the day itself will be documented as well. To share to the world that we need to be there for eachother.

Anyone can help, from anywhere in the world. Even 1 euro can already make a difference, if 500 people are willing to give just 1 euro, this project will be able to come to life and bring happiness to the people in need.

I think this is a brilliant way of giving back to the community. Sadly, I am not in Montpelier, so I can’t really help out physically. I did however want to get involved, so I wanted to spread the word. I urge you to help out if you are in the area!

what does ‘homeless’ actually mean?

Over the last couple of months I have been doing a lot of reading on this topic. I have talked to people who are homeless and I have been looking out for news, articles, people, art, etc. where a person who is ‘homelss’ could appear.

I have reflected a lot on my life and have fallen back into the trap I set myself when I was writting my BEd Dissertation (Effects of the TCK lifestyle and multilingualism on identity development)…the trap that made me question where my ‘home’ was. I realized I don’t have one. And when I say “I’m going home” I mean the place I am sleeping at tonight. At the moment it’s my flat in England, but when I was travelling across the Balkans just last month it was the hostel I was staying at. I remember myself saying to a fellow traveller: “It’s getting cold, I’m going to go home now.” He looked at me funny and I retorted with: “I mean…I’m going to the hostel now.”

I’m sure I’m not the only one that feels like this.

I have recently also joined a Facebook group for nomads, people who travel. These are some of the responses I got from people in the forum to the question of: What does it mean to be homeless?

A person who does not have a specific place to call “home”, but for which any place where they sleep for more than 1 night, can be refered to as “home”. For example: he/she stayes in a camping-site for 3 days, goes out exploring and at the end of a day he/she thinks: “I will go home, have some dinner and sleep”, even though in a few days “home” will be in a different.

Another respondent said something quite different:

no permanent place you can call home-be it any form of temporary accommodation

And a third respondent was very matter-of-fact about it:

Living without a permanent home and address.

It’s wonderful for me to see that different people have different perspectives on this topic. It’s also reassuring to see this, because politicians, academics and researchers themselves are not sure what the term “homeless” really means.

It was only in 2006 that the European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless attempted to define the term. They came up with the European Typology on Homelessness and Housing Exclusion (ETHOS). It attempts to classify and confine people into boxes. The problem with this is, that the issue of homelessness is extremely complex (as can also be seen by the definitions of everyday-people above), and that people don’t like to be put into boxes; a term like “homeless” is extremely stigmatizing. Also, homelessness is not a rigid event. It’s a cycle, a malleable process, a journey. People tend to fall in and out of homelessness, or change between different types of homelessness. Their situation changes rapidly, sometimes too fast for classification.

On top of this, is a person seen as homeless if they utter words like these?

Without home son i don t feel like homeless everywhere ils my home

or

If I would have to call my self as homeless then it would just because I dont have permanent place to stay- I would always have place where to sleep(airoport, busstop, tent) so I cant be homeless …

or

Different meanings in different periods of life, but in this moment it means ”no home because of travel”, ”my home is where my backpack is”, ”the home is where wifi is” etc.

Are these people seen as homeless? Do they fit into one of the boxes? If I were to take a year off to travel, I would be classified as homeless…but do so many of the issues that many people who are homeless face affect me? Not necessarily.

Keep this in mind when you’re talking about people who are homeless. It’s not just those sitting on the side of the road. Yes, those are the most visible types of homeless, but there are many more. The people I quoted above are travellers, people without permanent addresses, but who choose to do what they do. People who believe what they are doing is great. And I would agree with them.

But there is yet another face of homelessness. Those living in temporary housing, couchsurfing with friends over extended periods of times, families living in B&Bs. These are not visible. They look like anybody else. They don’t sit on the street begging and they don’t carry their lives around in backpacks. Keep that in mind.

There is more to this problem than you might think.

American Vagabond, an opinionated review.

Sunday, the 23rd of March 2014 One World Romania Film Festival: American Vagabond.

I was so lucky to see this movie! I had seen the trailer a couple of months ago and had been waiting for it to be online to watch. I really wanted to see this movie about a young boy, who once his parents found out was gay ran away from/got kicked out of his parents’ house to go live on the streets of San Francisco with his boyfriend. It was only on Saturday that I realized this movie was playing at One World.

I had to see it.
And I was not disappointed.

Again, I do not know much about cinematography, but this movie touched me somewhere deep inside. It stuck with me and despite having been talking to many people who are homeless over the last week and quite a bit a few years ago, despite having read many stories, biographies, after having watched Children Underground, despite having seen people who are homeless on the street for my entire life, this movie shocked me. It’s quite different to read and hear from different sources that anyone can be put into a situation like this faster than you can think, but it was this boy’s, or should I say man’s (?), story that enraged me. It made me upset, it scared me, it pissed me off.

The only reason James had to go through all the hardships he went through and will probably have to face for the rest of his life was that he was gay. The only reason his parents no longer accepted him under their roof was because he loved another boy.

How, in today’s society, can something like this be a cause for homelessness? How can homosexuality be seen as something so horrible that you send your own child away to live a life of begging, stealing, poverty. Of hiding from the police, of scavenging for food and change.

Maybe it was the voiceovers with the scenes of where James and Tyler lived that made me cringe inside, maybe it was the story of these two individuals, and maybe it was because I have spent so much of my recent time with people so similar to them. I am not sure what it was exactly, but anyone who is interested in documentaries or homelessness should definitely watch this movie!

Something else that might have caused my closeness to this film is the fact that we were able to have a Q&A session with Susanna Helke [inert link to website] at the end of the film. It was amazing to see this woman in the flesh, and to hear her perspective on making the film. To hear that it took her four years to create this masterpiece, that it almost couldn’t have been finished because of certain situations James had gotten himself into…namely jail. It was great to hear about the hardships she saw and endured to make this movie. Truly inspiring.

If you are interested in these kinds of films, make sure to check out my new documentaries [insert link to tab] tab.

Europe’s most Illuminated Gutter (Part 1: The Canal)

On my last day at the social centre a man came up to me and asked if I would like to talk to him. Wow. This was a first.

Of course, I accepted. I got the key for my usual room went to look for the man and then conducted my interview. This man talked a LOT. A lot, lot. Mostly not about the questions I asked him, but he gave me a lot of background information on life in the Gutter, or the canal, as they call it here.

He told me a lot about his life and about the hierarchy in the canal. He told me how there was a chef who took care of him when he arrived, and who made sure everyone was doing well in the canal. He was the one that sold the drugs to everyone, but also the man who took care of his flatmates and made sure they had food, water, electricity and medicine if they needed it.

On top of all of this, he taught me how not to get robbed by people like him. He told me all about his escapades in Germany, Italy, Austria, France, etc. and how he made his living as a thief. (Blog entry about this topic coming soon. Keep coming back to find out what you can do to not get robbed, the Bucharest street edition-24.04.2014)

Back to the canal.

Today was the day that the street worker, another volunteer and I would go to the canal at Gara de Nord, or according to one of the inhabitants: Europe’s most illuminated Gutter.

I am not exactly sure what he meant by this statement. Did he mean that they had the brightest people living there? The gutter with the most electricity? The most light? Or maybe, and most likely, he meant that it was the most well-known gutter in Europe. When you talk to Romanians, or Expats living in Romania and you ask them where you can find people who are homeless, they will not hesitate to tell you: in the canal at Gara de Nord. This inhabitant of the gutter also told us that many journalists had come to take pictures of the place. Journalists from all over Europe have come to take a look at their home to take pictures, to show the world what horrible state they live in.

I want to give a different perspective on this. Yes, it is a stuffy, crowded, hot, probably flea and other bug infested place to live, but it is also an alternative to living in the cold. It is an alternative to death, and it is an example of freedom.

If I have learnt anything from talking to many people who have spent years, if not almost their whole lives, living on the streets it’s that many enjoy the lifestyle. Yes, it is dangerous and violent, but for many it is also a life where they can enjoy liberty. Liberty from the state, laws, abusive homes and orphanages.

Although I made sure I looked and sounded tough when THE STREETWORKER asked me if I wanted to join him, I really wasn’t. To be honest, I was terrified to go down there today. I had some trouble sleeping and was worried that similar feelings of fear of the dark, the depth, the unknown would overcome me like it did in the bat cave in Nepal.

I made sure nobody knew.

After all, this isn’t an opportunity you get thrown at you every day. It’s not usual to be able to go see a place that so many ignore, that so many people don’t know exists.

First I saw the other volunteer climb down. As soon as she reached the bottom, I began my climb. Once I reached the bottom I no longer saw her. In fact, I no longer saw anything. I started to feel all those feelings come up. The fear of being left behind in a deep, dark and dirty hole. I was beginning to fear the worst, all logic had left me. It’s kind of sad to think back now, in the privacy of my room, to think that that’s all it takes for me to get so scared…after all the places I’ve been to and all the things I’ve seen…something like this still scares me.

I was left alone, I couldn’t see THE OTHER VOLUNTEER or our friend from the social centre that wanted to show us the place he used to live in. Behind me I saw a wall with a little hole underneath it, so I decided to bend own and peer through the hole. Sure enough I saw some feet and legs, as well as some carpes. Ah. That’s where I’m supposed to go.

I was glad I am so small and climbed through the hole that wasn’t any taller than half a metre. There I was. Standing in the middle of a living room. As I looked up I saw a man with snot coming out his nose, spit coming out of his mouth and a bloated, dirty face. After swallowing all the spit I had in my mouth, and not taking a deep breath because of the stench, I smiled and said Buna ziua. I got a response and as I was searching the room for THE OTHER VOLUNTEER, I found her standing a couple of metres in front of me. I quickly walked towards her past other men, a woman and a child (approximately 20 people) who were either standing up or laying on their beds, but mostly sitting down. The place wasn’t crowded, but it was quite full. The small path between the two concrete tubes that are Bucharest’s sewage systems was kept pretty clean. There were only very few plastic bottles and cups on the floor. The tubes were covered in carpets and blankets. At first I didn’t see everything, it took some time for me to actually see where I was. As I walked towards the end of the room, I began to see where I was heading.

I was heading towards the social centre of the canal. The drug kitchen.

THE OTHER VOLUNTEER was talking to the man that had taught me so much about stealing, whom I have gotten quite fond of. He told me several times to be careful of the people in the canal, to be careful what I touch and to make sure I don’t touch any of the syringes that are there. He took care of me.

I meet up with THE OTHER VOLUNTEER before we are introduced to THE LEADER, the leader of the canal. I quickly shook hands with him and introduced myself. He knew I came with THE STREETWORKER, who goes to this canal every Friday to keep in touch with the people that might want some assistance from the NGO.

Another inhabitant tells me that he is so glad that THE LEADER is now here, because he made this place the place it is. Before it used to be really bad, but it was his sole doing. This place. THE LEADER heard this and retorted with a smile and a: no, it wasn’t my doing. It was God’s doing. As we turn around to leave, our guide from the centre tells me that it was all THE LEADER’s doing with the help of God that this place was now safer, had electricity and was this clean.

On our way out I made sure not to touch anything as I saw that syringes were not only neatly placed in cups on the counter that was separating THE LEADER and his closest friends from the rest of the inhabitants, but also in peoples arms, mouths and necks; as well as on the carpets and the floor.

THE OTHER VOLUNTEER made sure to quickly tell me to make sure I am careful where I place my hands because of all the syringes she also saw before we climbed back out of the hole.

In retrospect, I was imagining the place to be larger, but I hadn’t imagined it to be this bright or warm. The warmth coming from the concrete tubes made me sweat under my jacket and sweater. The light made it almost unnecessary for my eyes to adjust once I finally reached the room. The flat-screen T.V. was showing Romanian television and the ventilator made sure that there fresh air could always come into the canal. This, I was later told, was the biggest problem with living in the canal: fresh air.

Something else I learnt later from THE STREETWORKER, was that in this small space, that seemed to be quite full with the 20 or so people there when I visited, was the sleeping place for somewhere between 80 and 100 people. Where do they sleep? They have to be sleeping on top of one another for them all to fit. I was talking to THE OTHER VOLUNTEER about this a little, and she agreed with me in assuming that at night maybe 40 people or so would be sleeping in there. We both could not believe 80-100 people could even fit into that small space.

As we were back on the outside, in the cold, grey daylight that Bucharest had to offer today, our guide told us about the canal across the street. This one was supposedly very similar, but quite a bit larger. We were also told that they were planning on building a shower in the other canal.

This piece of information was very interesting for me, because it shows that this really is a home for these people. It is the place where they live and spend many, many years of their lives. Our guide himself had lived in this particular canal since 1989.

After walking around the large place and park in front of the train station and giving out tea to people who are homeless, I engaged in some more conversation with our guide. He told me something I had previously also heard in some of my interviews, one of the worst things of living on the street is not the hunger or thirst or need for drugs, it’s that everyone either ignores you or usually looks at you with a face of disgust, makes sure there is a big space around you or makes sure that you are nowhere near the actual train station because you might upset some people with your mere presence.

I am sure you have done the same, I am sure I have done the same…ignored beggars on the street. Yes they might be dirty and might not smell good. Yes they might be high and off the rocker, but the next time you walk past someone try to not change your path. Stay on the path you were on. I am not asking you to talk to everyone or to give them something, but just acknowledge their presence. Who knows, maybe you’ll make their day with a smile and a quick Hello or Good Morning.

Reflections on my placement research project

After having looked what the children had drawn and written down, I want to make some quick comments. I have not yet fully analysed all the data I received, but have developed some common themes within the different pieces of art and writing.

Most commonly, people who are homeless are seen to be as very poor, sad, begging and wearing very torn, broken and ripped clothes. Some examples even went as far as missing arms and legs, not having many teeth and hair and being very thin.

I was surprised to see that, for the most part, the children drew adults and not…like I was expecting…children. I wonder why this is. Could it be that the people they see on the streets are mostly adults? Do they not imagine that a child could live on the streets without their parents? This would be an interesting question to ask for further research.

Something else that I was surprised about, that I mentioned briefly in my last post, was the lack of distinction between Gypsy and homeless. When I told the kids I wanted to find out what they thought about people who are homeless, some immediately jumped to the conclusion that I meant Gypsies. Although I shortly talked to them about the difference and that Gypsy is a unique ethnic group and that they aren’t in fact always poor I obviously couldn’t change these children’s minds. A boy even drew a lady who was very poor and living in a Gypsy camp for his assignment of drawing a person who is homeless. I guess he wasn’t completely wrong (traditionally Gypsies are a nomadic people that don’t have a home in the sense that many Westerners see a home), but I personally think that putting these two minority groups into one bucket is slightly racist towards both groups. This is something else that would be interesting to further investigate: What do private school children perceive Gypsies to be like. After finding this out, it would be interesting to compare the images/data from the research on the perceptions of homelessness and of Gypsies.

It was a little sad that I had to rush my research due to lack of time, but I was still able to gather the data I needed and wanted for my research. It would be great to conduct this research on a larger scale and with more available time. Now that I have some data I think it would be interesting to see whether/how the perceptions change as people get older. It would also be interesting to see if a child’s heritage/other countries of residence have an impact on how they see people who are homeless. A short discussion was started on this as a girl stated that she sometimes thought that her entire country of origin was filled with people who are homeless because there was so much poverty where she came from. Having a large-scale discussion on this topic would be very interesting.

As you can see this topic still interests me quite a lot. There are lots of different questions wizzing around in my head about where else this research could go…I probably should stop thinking about this now though, because I will be able to write a whole second dissertation on this topic if my questions keep coming….never mind the dissertation, I could write a book on this topic….oh oh. Okay, enough on this topic. I am starting to go crazy in thinking about writing dissertations and books and all those things.

Maybe someday.
But that day is not today.
I’ll keep this in mind.

Speaking of keeping things in mind, would you be interested in reading more about this…in a more academic manner? Children’s perceptions of homelessness?

One slow day and one day of serious focus group action.

Monday was a very, very slow day. I got to the centre a little early, so everyone was still in the lunch room. That didn’t bother me. I went upstairs, got the key for my room and went to my room to prepare for the day. I thought I had a big day ahead of me. I wanted to get my focus groups going.

Once I’m ready, I head out of the room towards the Café that is usually very full of people drinking coffee and tea. Not today. So I go downstairs and outside, around the building and into the other building. I see a couple of people, but nobody I know. So I start to go back inside to see if Marius is now in his office.

He is.
So I ask him about going to visit the school in the other centre run by the same NGO. He agrees and tells me I can go on Wednesday. Yes. Awesome.

I still don’t really find anyone. So I take matters into my own hands. Thank god I made a quick ‘what’s important on the street’ survey. I basically force whoever I see to talk to me and even talk one person into doing a longer interview with me. In the end I get one focus group done as well. Still…it was a very, very strange day. I recognized nearly nobody.

Tuesday was quite different. The centre was still not bustling and full of life like the past week, but I saw more familiar faces and was able to get two focus groups going. This time however, I decided to just do everything I wanted to do in a focus group at once. No more ‘oh, but they need time’ or ‘but I don’t want to use up 30 minutes of their precious time’. No more. I just did everything I had to do: positives, negatives and interesting aspects of life on the streets, what was learnt on the street, personal learning timelines, a picture of the most important lesson and short interviews about all of those things. It was a good day.

As of now, I have all the data I need for my dissertation.

I think.
I hope.

Tomorrow I will be going back in just to see if anyone else is willing to do any of my research schedules with me…an interview, a focus group, just have a chat. I feel like most of the people who want to talk to me have done so already. Many have talked to me on several occasions. I have my eye on 4 more people who were busy doing other activities today. I might get them to do another focus group with me. We’ll see.

Besides that possibility, tomorrow I have an exciting day ahead of me. In the morning I will be heading in to the school to conduct the first part of my placement research. In the afternoon I’ll be back in the centre and a little later I’ll be able to visit the school that the NGO has created for the people who are homeless.

School? Education? Not interested.

So far, I have conducted six interviews on schooling and homelessness. I do not want to go into too much detail on my questions, and just want to give some examples of the stories I have heard. I will give two examples that will show the complexity of the situation that homelessness is.

First, I would like to give an example that might be exactly what one thinks of when they hear the term of homeless and Bucharest, Romania in one sentence:

Man 1: 30 years old.
The first time he ran away from home, he was only 5 1/2 years old. He was moved between abusive child centres, his abusive home and the abusive streets. He started using Aurolac (car paint in a plastic bag-the drug of choice for the children of the streets of Bucharest) at a very early age and did not go to school. Living on the streets was like a game to him until he was 18 years old. It was only then that he realized that he was no longer a child, and that the state would no longer provide for him. He did not attend school, does not know how to read or write and lived day after day not moving around, stealing here and there, carrying boxes of beer or juice from vans into shops for a little bit of money every now and again. At age 30 he is mentally and physically ill and is attempting to get off the streets. Education is still of no interest to him.

Not everyone is like this. Just like everywhere else there are people who get to the streets because of mistakes they have made in their later lives.

Man 2: 30 years old
Moved on to the streets at age 28 after his girlfriend of 12 years broke up with him and he began using drugs. He did not want his family to know, so he moved to the streets to avoid them being ashamed of him. This man has completed high school, speaks English very well and enjoys reading. He enjoyed it so much that he would read with a flashlight in the abandoned building he was staying in despite the laughter coming from his street companions. After some time, the others became interested in reading and he began to teach them how to read and write. A year after moving onto the streets he heard about a certain social service centre that could help him get off the streets. He has been there and at home since December. His love for reading and his belief that education is important has turned him into a sort of teacher for 3 friends (2 on the street and one in the centre).

I wanted to give these two very different examples of homelessness to show the complexity of my study and to show that just like everybody else, there are those that enjoy and those that do not enjoy school and studying.

I will be conducting some focus groups to see where reading, writing, mathematics lie on the scale of importance for different people who have been involved with the streets as well as when the most educative phases of their time on the streets were.