Helping the homeless in Romania

Published: 23 October 2003 0:00 CET

Rita Plotnikova in Brasov

Men and women of various ages, in shabby clothes, with grey exhausted faces queue in a long clean corridor. The line is quiet. Everyone knows that his turn will come and that Romeo will pour the hot soup into each plate, just as he does every day.

Romeo Pansnicu, 26, is one of the residents of the Red Cross Centre in the central Romanian town of Brasov. But, in return for living here, he also works in the centre’s kitchen.

The son of an alcoholic mother, Romeo spent most of his childhood in an orphanage – a cold and miserable place. At 18 he was exposed to a life on the streets: with no job, no friends and no roof above his head - in Romania, the state does not take care of the young adults leaving its institutions.

After five years spent in “air castles”, he found his mother, who allowed him to live in her apartment for payment. Romeo was happy. He got a job with a Christian Charity, where for three years he cared for animals and did small repair jobs.

“My daily salary was about 50,000 lei (US$ 1.20), of which my mother took 30,000, leaving me with virtually nothing,” he recalls. “Every time she was drunk she started fighting with me and finally kicked me out of the apartment. But then she found me at a railway station, and brought me back because she needed my money.”

Romeo’s story is sad and familiar. Many of Romania’s homeless have multiple problems associated with a history of institutional care or confinement, family break-down, alcoholism, health problems or unemployment.

“I got the idea to establish a centre for homeless people in 2001,” says Luane Minea, Director of the Romanian Red Cross branch in Brasov County. “The state social protection system has the capacity to pay attention to street children – a problem that has been highlighted in the international media in recent years. But it does not concern itself with adults without homes,” she said.

According to the 2003 report of the European Federation of National Organizations working with homeless (FEANTSA), it is impossible to estimate the exact number of people living without a roof over their heads in Romania’s urban areas, but their ranks have swelled dramatically in the past decade.

Médecins sans Frontières estimates that of the 2.2 million citizens of Bucharest, 5,000 are living in the streets. Yet there are only six night shelters in the entire country, including the one in Brasov.

Luane Minea and her colleagues managed to bring together the local authorities and other relevant players in the city to define what were the major social gaps in their community. They defined three problems that needed urgent solutions: a centre for the homeless, for young adults leaving institutional care and street children.

“Among the 314,225 population of Brasov,” says Luane, “at least 300 are sleeping in the streets, at the railway station, in tunnels underneath the city. We are all aware of the problem, but what have we got to offer?”

The Brasov Red Cross Centre for homeless people was opened in 2002 in a big two-storey building provided by the city administration. Luana attributes part of the success of the project to the Swiss Red Cross, which gave advice and helped to compile the application for funds to the European Community Humanitarian Office – the money that helped to get the ball rolling.

The situation in Romania is the heritage of both the communist regime and the harsh economic transition. According to FEANTSA, privatization of housing in Romania and decentralization of responsibilities ruled by the market laws has lead to low-income groups becoming increasingly deprived of adequate housing.

This is the case of Juan (43) and Maria (41) Podgar and their two children who, unable to pay the rent, lost their recently privatised apartment in 2002. Friends recommended that they go to the State Child Protection Centre to leave their children there and then look for a job.

The desperate couple chose to apply to the new Red Cross Centre where they could continue to live together for a while. Being an unqualified worker, Juan found a job for 2.5 million lei (US$ 75) a month at a railway station. “This money is hardly enough for food,” says Juan. “This is a good solution for us, but we’ll probably have to leave the kids with the state for some time to be able to find a better job and a dwelling of our own.”

The first seven days in the centre are free of charge, but then one has to pay 10,000 lei (25 cents) per night. There is no family accommodation here and people are billeted in rooms for 4-6 people each. Children stay free. Today there are 90 residents. Many come to spend the night, but nearly half stay longer while they look for a longer-term solution.

The centre stands in the middle of a residential zone in Brasov, and its inhabitants mingle with the local community. “The people are getting on well together,” says Adriana Belau, the centre’s administrator. “Every day our residents clean the streets or do gardening and it is appreciated by the local community.” Some get a permanent job here, repairing furniture, making clothes or cooking, like Romeo.

Romeo says he likes his work. It takes him away from his worst memories, which remain vivid: the loneliness, cold and hunger, raids and beatings, the police taking the little money he earned by washing cars. Despite all this, Romeo insists, “I will build my future.”

He dreams of a home of his own, a job and, perhaps, a family. But he snaps out of his dream. “It doesn’t seem very realistic. I cannot even afford a girlfriend,” he says.

The Red Cross workers have a special concern for people like Romeo: “He works well and has good intentions in life. But there are moments when he is not interested in anything and his strength and determination fade away. We try to keep him employed in the centre and give some moral support,” says Adriana Belau.

Some 90 per cent of homeless people have no documentation. The Red Cross has struck an agreement with the local police to register the residents of the centre to their address, thus providing them with an identity card and a better chance of finding a job.

The Red Cross is in the process of renovating the building, giving residents more living space and proper heating. “In two years we plan to hand the centre over to the local authorities. We do not want to keep it,” continues Luane.

“We have highlighted the problem and made our contribution to resolving it. Homelessness is a problem that requires proper state policies and attention. Now that the centre exists and is operational, we are sure that people know about it and will get a basic level of protection here,” she says.