10 October is marked worldwide as the World Homeless Day. In the run-up to this day last year we spoke to the persons experiencing homelessness to gain an insight into their lives and raise awareness on what it is like to be without a home, to sleep rough or live in a homeless shelter and to feel almost invisible to the rest of the society.
This year’s story is told from the angle of the people dedicating their lives to assisting the homeless and providing them with shelter, food, health care and education but also working on restoring their self-esteem, dignity and the sense of belonging. They help them by writing their job applications, facilitating the development of their talents – their paths towards better lives, and search for their loved ones so they could be buried by their families after they die. Together, they have gathered 67 years of experience – the first two, Đordana Barbarić of the NGO MoSt from Split and Zvonko Mlinar of the Croatian Homelessness Network from Zagreb, have spent decades assisting the most vulnerable members of the society, whereas Pjer Orlić, director of the “St. Francis’ Roses” Homeless Shelter from Rijeka, started working in the field two years ago.
We wish to thank all of them for their honest responses and for providing us and our readers with an insight into their efforts aimed at building a better society and extending support to those who need it the most.
“Lives of the people living on the edge who have lost faith in themselves and in the institutions can be turned for the better” – Đordana Barbarić
Đordana Barbarić has been active in the NGO MoSt from Split since 1999 and headed the organization for a number of years. Presently, she runs its Knowledge Center for Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction.
Discussing the motivation driving her work, she says it is „first and foremost the deeply human purpose of what I do, helping and providing support to children, young people and those living in various sorts of unfavorable circumstances. I am especially motivated by the fact that it is possible to bring about change for the better in the lives of the people who live on the edge and have lost faith in themselves and in the institutions and that it is possible, through hard and dedicated work, to achieve change in our city.“
[pullquote]MoSt is one of the most prominent civil society organizations working with the homeless in the Republic of Croatia. Their activities include the reduction of poverty and social exclusion, youth work aimed at children and youth with behavioral problems and promoting volunteering at the local level.[/pullquote]
Both those experiencing homelessness as well as those working with them keep facing prejudice and stigma, underscores Barbarić. It is reflected in phrases such as “It’s all their own fault”, “They’re all addicts”, “Bums”, “They chose to live like that”, “It is what it is; there’s no way of helping them”. Still, change is visible: “Today, after 22 years, thousands of citizens of all ages assist in the activities of the Homeless Center and the local food pantry; for more than ten years now every night the citizens cook for the homeless; all elementary schools, high schools, the Split University and the local sports clubs contribute to our work 365 days a year and that represents our biggest victory against prejudice”.
Through her work at the Homeless Center Barbarić has met thousands of women and men “living through difficult, painful, complex circumstances. I remember many of them.” For example, a woman whose life story became known only after her death. She managed to escape domestic violence and “began living in the streets, experiencing all that such a life brings. It was awful to see what that kind of a life did to her body and her mind; she came to the shelter utterly exhausted and died within the next ten days. Following her death, we started searching for her identity and managed to find her family. She was buried with her folk.”
If she had the power to do so, she would “advocate for the implementation of the laws, strategies, measures and rules, which do exist and are good and efficient on paper. What needs to be achieved is the implementation of the right to a decent living for all, a just social policy, social and health care services available and equally accessible to all vulnerable groups in all parts of the country, every county, every large city, as well as a continuous and open dialogue at all levels – state, regional and local – between decision-makers and those working on the ground, taking into account the constant changes and the emergence of new groups at risk of poverty and homelessness.”
“Sometimes we get discouraged too but every successful escape from the vicious circle of homelessness motivates us to keep going” – Zvonko Mlinar
Zvonko Mlinar has spent the past 42 years working in the social welfare system, 12 of which directly with the homeless. During that time he has gotten to know at least 1500 individuals pushed into homelessness by various combinations of unfortunate circumstances. At present, he is serving as project leader for the project „A New Perspective for the Homeless „and volunteers as executive director for the Croatian Homelessness Network.
Similar to him, most people like working with and helping other, says Mlinar. It does not come as a surprise, then, that he has spent his entire career volunteering for various NGOs and humanitarian organizations. „I guess it’s a psychological need as well. A boss of mine, a well-off lawyer and assistant minister, who had never worked in the social welfare sector before, said to me once: The welfare sector pulls you in. I have never met so many good people anywhere else“, recounts Mlinar.
[pullquote]Croatian Homelessness Network gathers a number of civil society organizations and works under the motto “No one hungry, no one homeless and no one denied support”. Their activities include the advancement of the care for the homeless and other socially excluded groups, assisting the organizations active in eradicating homelessness, public awareness raising about homelessness.[/pullquote]
In his experience, if they are given a chance and provided with support, it is easier for the homeless to break out of that situation. Especially motivating are the difficult cases (addicts, ex-felons), proving that “provided with adequate help and support almost everyone can find the right path. “Sometimes we get discouraged too but every successful escape from the vicious circle of homelessness motivates us to keep going”, says Mlinar, illustrating his words with several examples.
“K. (18) was raised in foster care. At 18, he left the foster home at his own request. We met him on the street, drunk, and gave him accommodation in a group home. While living there, he graduated from high school, found a job and is currently living with his girlfriend. He’s 22 now. We talk and meet for a cup pf coffee from time to time.”
L. (19) grew up in a dysfunctional family that ended up in the streets. We accommodated him and his brother in a group home. He dropped out of high school after first grade. He laughed when I suggested for him to get training to become a sous chef. We got him to volunteer in a restaurant. Today he’s a successful chef in one of Zagreb’s famous restaurants.”
B. (26) grew up in foster care. Occasionally he worked as a waiter and got addicted to alcohol. He ended up in the streets and three months later in the homeless shelter. He was one of the most serious cases. Football, which he loved more than he loved alcohol, helped. We included him in Croatian Homeless Football Representation. Participation in the Homeless World Cup in Poland came with a condition – sobriety. He quit drinking. After the World Cup, he got a job in retail. Now he has a lovely family and is a father of three. “
Discussing prejudice against the persons experiencing homelessness, Mr. Mlinar recounts one person’s words: “All of my chances are gone as soon as I mention the fact that I’m homeless in a job interview. People have prejudice and there’s nothing I can do about it”. Additionally, the majority of the respondents in a survey conducted as part of the project „A New Perspective for the Homeless“ indicated agreement with the notion that an increased number of homeless persons in a community reduces the quality of life within it. „Many people believe the homeless are lazy, addicts, criminals, abusers, etc. Although some can be labeled as such, most ended up homeless due to family breakup, long-term unemployment, mental and other types of illnesses, old age, bankruptcy, etc.“
„When it comes to people experiencing homelessness, every little step forward is a big deal! And that fact should be acknowledged.“ – Pjer Orlić
Pjer Orlić has been managing the “St. Francis’ Roses” homeless shelter in Rijeka since April 2020, when, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, he transitioned from his career in journalism, after more than 20 years in the media business. It was not an easy decision, he says, and it entailed a host of questions and a lot of doubt. “What do I even know about the homeless? Am I even capable of doing this? On the other hand, it was a challenge. A huge one. Getting out of your comfort zone and facing… What exactly? I knew homelessness existed. And that was, basically, all I knew. Ok, there was some prejudice as well. And yes, a desire to make a difference”, says Mr. Orlić.
Quickly he became aware of several facts – that the issue of homelessness is underrecognized in Croatia, that everyone’s story is different and that “all of us are at the verge of homelessness and can easily slip into it. Don’t think that your good life and a decent job are guarantees that you won’t end up in the streets. You wouldn’t be the first person that has happened to”.
[pullquote]The St. Francis’ Roses” homeless shelter was founded in 2007 by the Rijeka Franciscans in the space secured by the Rijeka archdiocese. It provides housing and meals as well as various rehabilitation and resocialization programs for the homeless with the aim of their inclusion in the society.[/pullquote]
Mr. Orlić admits to having had prejudice against the homeless prior to working at the shelter and stresses they are still prevalent in the society. “Often I hear people say something like ‘these homeless folks are just lazy and don’t want to work’. Imagine having to go to work every day while at the same time not having a home. Imagine how difficult that must be. You don’t have a place to take a shower, to wash and change your clothes. How will you even get to work without a dime in your pocket? Even if you manage to find work, it will usually be low paid, precarious; you will most likely be an unregistered worker. Also, not being able to find work, many of the homeless people collect plastic bottles for recycling. A person who checks trash cans and looks for bottles from morning till’ evening can hardly be labelled as ‘lazy’. It takes effort and tenacity!”
We often tend to forget one thing: “That first and foremost each of them is a person. A person with their own dreams, fears, flaws and talents… When you accept them as persons and don’t judge them in advance, you can achieve a lot with them. You know, sometimes you can have a cup of coffee with them, have a chat, and achieve more in those 10-20 minutes than in the past several days!”.
In Mr. Orlić’s experience, often it is hard to motivate a homeless person to attempt to change their current situation. “And that’s exactly why, when it comes to people experiencing homelessness, every little step is a big deal! And that fact should be acknowledged. “
If given a chance, he would change a lot when it comes to the current treatment of homelessness: make health care accessible to the persons experiencing homelessness, provide them with housing using the “housing first” model, introduce the ETHOS typology of homelessness already in use in most of the EU member states.
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