The voice of citizens without shelter
“Working together for a green, competitive and inclusive Europe”
“Life on the street is a continuous fight for survival which they somehow manage to continue for years, while they are kept in the same situation”
What is really the hardest part for the people who live in street is not these difficulties but the bureaucratic hurdles they need to go through in order to be acknowledged as citizens and the sensation that they are invisible to those around them, that nobody cares about them.”
Lately you had a lot of individual discussions with persons that don’t have a home. What do their stories have in common and how do you think that we, those around them, could offer support?
The sensation that is transmitted by their stories is more often than not that of abandonment. Most of them are people who had a moment of bad luck – an eviction in the chaos of restitutions of nationalized building, a divorce, an untreated depression and other health problems – as a result of which, in the lack of a safety net, they were left homeless. Life on the street is a continuous fight for survival which they somehow manage continue for years, while they are kept in this situation.
I say they are kept in this situation because the whole social system seems to be design in such a way that, it stops them from rebuilding their life. The lack of residence makes it difficult to obtain a personal ID card. The lack of an ID card makes the accessing of social services and the interaction with the authorities difficult. Many people without a shelter who have health problems cannot register to a family medic because they don’t have the necessary paperwork. Without health insurance and a family medic, the health problems get worse and they make the prospect of getting a job almost impossible. The process of finding a job is also made more difficult by the insufficient public services of shelter and hygiene: if someone comes to an interview dirty and visibly tired after a sleepless night, would you hire him or assume he is a drunkard?
Our assumptions and attitudes are still a factor that contribute to the spreading of the homelessness phenomenon. The conviction that it is everybody’s business to manage in life, the presumption that if you ended up in the street you did something wrong, that you are poor because you don’t work hard enough, that you stink because you lack common sense – all these help us ignore the problem, they shield us from the truth, that all of us could end up in this situation if we don’t have support in a crisis situation, if we don’t get a second change when we make a mistake.
Many of the people with whom I have talked manage to somehow keep a stoicism and humor when they talk about the hardships of life. What is really the hardest part for the people who live in street is not these difficulties but the bureaucratic hurdles they need to go through in order to be acknowledged as citizens and the sensation that they are invisible to those around them, that nobody cares about them.
There are a few things that we can do for our fellow citizens who are trapped in the vicious circle of homelessness. First we should get informed and understand: what are the causes that lead to people living in the street? what keeps them there? what do they need? We can find these things out by reading a few pages that are offered by organizations that offer services to this people, or, even better, we can talk with a few people without shelter instead of turning our heads when we pass them. A question and a kind word helps to soften the effects of isolation.
People without shelter don’t have a place where to keep their belongings, because of that they only have one exchange of clothes which they wear until they are no longer wearable. Now, when winter is coming, the people who live on the street are depended of the emergency services that are offered by NGOs and clothes donations. We can donate money to this organizations, or clothes, or our time by doing volunteering work for them. Another form of donation that can help people without shelter is a mobile phone, which they can use to search for information or call for emergency services.
If we are willing to do a little research we can find out what services for people without shelter are offered at local level by the authorities or NGOs and we can guide the people in need to them.
Another important thing that we can do is to ask the authorities to fulfill their duty when it comes to people without shelter: to offer the support that these people need in order to become productive members of the society.
You will do community organizing with the clients of Carusel Association, people who live on the street. What does this process entail and what is its objective?
As I was saying, the constant fight and public disapproval is hard for people. Many of them are in a state of resignation, in which they started to believe that there is nothing that can be done, that nobody cares or even worse, that they deserve to be in this situation.
My task is to be there for them, to help them articulate the problems they face, to identify the common causes and the people responsible for solving their problems and to propose adequate solutions.
Most of the time I just listen and maintain the direction of the discussions in order to get to some conclusions. This is why the project is called “the Voice of people without shelter”, because it is about making the needs and stories of people without shelter heard, not only to the responsible authorities but also to the people who live around them.
Through this process of community organizing we hope to make more persons without shelter regain their self-esteem and to realize that even without a shelter they are still citizens to whom the authorities owe a debt.
Community organizing involves organizing people but also organizing the resources they have and people without a shelter have very few resources (material wise, energy wise and emotional wise). I started on this path being aware of this challenge and of the fact that the process will be a long one, so I adapted the process of community organizing in order to include some basic services that will enable people to participate even more in the process of identifying solutions and the work needed for their implementation.
How should a society, that does not let its citizens live on the street, look like?
A society that does not let its citizens live on the street is a society that knows its own interest.
The abandonment of people in this situations costs us all. It costs our emergency services (shelter and medical), which are already underfunded for the current needs. It costs us workforce. It costs us psychological peace and comfort. Perhaps worst of all, ignoring this problem can cost us personally if we happen to end up in a similar situation – a thing that is more possible now than ever in the context of this health and economic crisis.
What role do the public institutions have in improving the extreme context in which people without a shelter live in?
From my point of view, the authorities have the main role in improving the life conditions of people without a shelter. Taking a good look on the laws and procedures which regulate the relationships between citizens and authorities, it becomes clear right away that they were conceived without taking into consideration people without shelter. The bureaucratic paperwork is enough to drive any citizen insane, but it has an even greater impact on people without resources. In general, the solutions offered by the authorities – shelters with insufficient space and miserable conditions, social benefits that are hard to access and completely insufficient for day to day living – show a lack of interest in the problem, which is facilitated by the lack of pressure from the citizens. What is offered to people right now looks like the minimum help given out of pity and not as a real attempt to solve the problem.
In order to come up with a real solution for the problem of housing, the public institutions should involve the people who are directly affected by the problem in the process of identifying adequate solutions. In short, listen to them.
There also is a problem of prioritization and political will. If we realize that the problem is a grave one and if we want to find a solution, we need to invest more now in order to pay less in the future. For example, the Program “Houses before everything”, which involves giving a living space first and only after to offer support for social reintegration, was piloted in many EU countries and into some cities in UK and US and has become a national policy in Finland, the Netherlands and Portugal. Comparative studies have shown that this model is more efficient economically and has a benefic impact on the beneficiaries. Instead, in Romania, social housing is almost non-existent when reported to the existing need and those who exist are offered based on criteria that makes them impossible to obtain for the majority of people who live on the street. Being a county with many economic problems, Romania cannot afford to waste resources on solutions that are proven to be ineffective just because you waste funds little by little.
Until the authorities will decide to implement an ambitious program or until the European Union will come with the initiative, there are many partial solutions which don’t require many resources and which will make the life of people without a shelter a little better. Providing free storage spaces would allow people to keep their few clothes and strictly necessary things in safety and increase their mobility. A public bathroom that includes a service where you can receive a haircut would improve their health, increase their comfort and social acceptance.
We have numerous solutions, but we need to want to solve the problem.
“The project is implemented by CeRe: Resources Center for Public Participation in partnership with Carusel Assocaiton and benefits from financial support from the Active Citizens Fund Romania, program financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the SEE 2014-2021 Grants. The content of this website does not necessarily reflect the position of the SEE and Norwegian 2014-2021 Grants. For more information, access www.eeagrants.org.
*CeRe support groups and organizations regardless of their cause. However, we will not support causes that contradict our values: diversity, equity, equality, courage, solidarity, trust, participatory democracy.