The number of Bucharest's street children has decreased. Just because they've grown older
from our correspondent
Subway stop Costin Giorgeanu, outskirts of Bucharest. Huge communist-era apartment
blocks, all of them grey, identical to all the others throughout the city, obedient
to the Ceasescu regime’s esthetic of gigantism. Just off an intersection where
the traffic never stops, along abandoned rail lines, a scrubby patch of trees
and bushes. “Come inside, I’ll show you where I live,” says Catalin, 15. A hundred
meters or so through the undergrowth, a few bare bulbs illuminate a collapsing
shack. Home for fifteen teens and adults, between 14 and 30. They sleep on communal
mattresses on the ground. Miniature adults, but still with the spirit of children,
as shown by the giant stuffed animals that decorate the shack. Both inside and
outside their home, utter degradation: litter, scattered newspapers, empty bottles
everywhere. But their lives are organized: they hang their laundry from lines
after washing clothes in a basin with water they carry from a nearby carwash.
About one thousand young people live like this in Bucharest. In winter, they
sleep underground, their front door a manhole cover. Not in the sewers, as many
think, but the tunnels that carry hot water pipes to the city’s apartment blocks.
The pipes keep the spaces warm, which means survival: winter temperatures in Bucharest
descend to 20 degrees below zero, centigrade. The inhabitants punch tiny holes
in the water pipes for showers and washing. They tap electrical lines to bring
in power for lights, tv, even dvds, though they risk electrocution every time
they turn them on. But the frost bites just the same, as does the desperation,
so they sniff Aurolac, a solvent that costs one euro per can and goes right to
your head. They pour a little into a plastic sack and inhale it continuously.
It helps them deal with the cold, but Aurolac destroys brain cells and damages
the lungs. The moment of peace will cost them dearly sooner or later.
The street children story exploded in the early Nineties, after Ceasescu’s collapse.
Under the dictator (the “conducator”) there were shortages of basic foodstuffs,
but everyone had a job provided by the state. With the end of communism, Romania
began a process of market liberalism that left millions of families unemployed.
The most enterprising adapted, establishing an embryonic middle class. The poorest,
meanwhile, became poorer. Many families were unable to support their children,
which ended up in orphanages (“orfelinat”) or in the street. There were no programs
to help them, partly because of personnel shortages. Ceasescu had abolished psychology
and social service departments in the universities during the Seventies, and they
weren’t reopened until 1992.
All these young people have similar stories. They ran away from home to escape
from violent, drunken fathers. Or they have no parents, or their families were
too poor to keep them, or they were placed in orphanages where the staff abused
them. Whatever the cause, it was less painful to flee and live like strays. As
they see it, it’s not so bad. “We like living here,” they say in the Costin Giorgeanu
group. But it’s clear they aren’t well. Just look at Radu, 18, with the body of
an 11-year-old, small and scrawny. A meter and a half tall, he couldn’t weigh
more than 30 kilos (66 pounds). Dancing with the others, he drinks wine from a
3-liter bottle and beats on a pan with a kitchen spoon, then kneels down to light
the stub of a cigarette. His good friend is Mircea, 30, who has lived in the street
for too many years to count. Radu talks in jumbled Rumanian but can’t seem to
listen: must be the Aurolac.
Franco Aloisio would say there’s no hope for him. Aloisio is an Italian who works
for Parada, a foundation set up by the French clown Miloud, who discovered the
street children of Bucharest in 1992 and decided to live with them for some months.
Parada teaches circus arts to the kids, provides them food, and assists them with
social service bureaucracy, in exchange for a promise to keep off glue and booze.
Aloisio has been working with the children for almost a decade, and has watched
them change. “In the mid-Nineties it was a massive; there were about 4,000 of
them. Now it’s one-fourth that number.” But Mirela, who works for a center for
street children named Sfanta Macrina run by the Orthodox Church, says the numbers
haven’t gone down, that there are more children begging in the streets than ever
before. But now, more have homes to return to at night.
Aloisio attributes the improvement to several factors. Many of the street children
have died, devastated by the life and Aurolac. Others have found space in group
homes set up in recent years. Today, few young people run away to live in the
street, but once a child decides to live there, it becomes hard to bring him back.
“There’s a one-to-five ratio: if a kid has been on the street one month, it takes
five to bring him back; one year takes five years. That means the older ones are
beyond hope by now.” Like Mircea, for example.
The situation is improving, in part because the government decided to concentrate
on a problem that might have weakened their case for entering the European Union.
The politicians want the streets clean, whatever it takes. Bucharest is planning
to open three dormitories for street children, but the city government doesn’t
like the organizations who support the kids. “A few days ago I got criticized
by the mayor of Sector 4,” Aloisio says, “because he was walking with some other
politicians and they came across a bunch of kids playing outside our center.”
At the beginning of this summer, when the street youths begin living out in the
open again, the police started sealing the manhole covers over their winter refuges.
“We’ll just open them up again,” says one of the Costin Giorgeanu group with a
defiant grin. The police don’t like the vagabonds because they’re little criminals
who make life difficult even for people who want to help them. One night a group
of kids high on Aurolac broke into Parada and caused a lot of destruction. The
police tolerate them to a degree, but every so often there’s a crackdown.
One night, as the Parada workers carry out their nightly round to bring food
to the various groups of street children, two agents arrive at the Dristor subway
station and demand that all the kids show their papers. Many have none. It’s an
excuse to make it impossible for groups like Parada to do their work. “If you
keep helping them, they’ll just go on living in the streets. They won’t get jobs
and they’ll steal to live,” a policeman tells one of the Parada workers. The workers
have no choice but to leave. “If we stay, they’ll ticket us because we don’t have
a permit,” one of them complains. Before their vehicle pulls away, an 8-year-old
child named Elvis huigs Chiara, a volunteer for Caritas Ambrosiana who helps out
at Sfanta Macrina. Little Elvis remembers her, and for a moment he seems a child
like any other. But a day before he was high on Aurolac, sucking from a plastic
bag as photographers snapped pictures.
Where will he end up? It’s already hard to get him off the street and will only
get harder as time passes. But that doesn’t mean the “veterans” aren’t trying
to change their lives. Emil, 28, and Maria, 25, provide an example. They met thirteen
years ago, when both had already lived in the street for some time. Maria was
already married with another vagabond, and had two children with him. Emil spent
three years in prison. As he was getting out of jail, Maria’s husband was going
in, so Maria and Emil ended up together. Now they’ve just had a baby, Alexandru
Constantin, but the child can’t be taken from the hospital because the father
has no identity papers. For the state, he doesn’t exist. But Emil isn’t giving
up. He works off the books, is trying to locate his papers in a house he lived
in formerly, and wants to rent an apartment for his new family. “He’s my first
child and my heart breaks to see him there and not be able to keep him with me.
Now I want a normal life.”