The Cold. Male violence. Physical and sexual violence. Menstrual pain. Just a few hours of sleep. These are some of the dangers homeless women face every day. Their lives on the streets are a maze of dangers. Homeless women in Bucharest talk about their experiences.
For some homeless women, violence begins at home
“I left the flat with what I had on me, that’s all. Because there was nowhere to keep them,” says a 50-year-old woman. She is tall and thin. She speaks with her eyes fixed on her black boots. She was left homeless late last year when her husband kicked her out of the house they were paying rent for together. He had beaten her twice before that, she says. Because she lost her job at the same time, she had to leave with her teenage daughter. Now they sleep at North Station.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do. There are all kinds of people there. And I don’t want anything to do with them. Not because of me, more because of the girl. For being young and…” He pauses to banish the dark thoughts. “You know how many things happen. I hope we don’t have any problems like that, that’s all we need,” she says with tears in her eyes. This is part of Ana’s story, as she prefers to call it. How it will continue, she doesn’t know. And at times like these, hope seems like a luxury she can’t afford.
25 women have been left homeless in Bucharest between 2020 and 2021 since the pandemic began. “This leads to the conclusion that the number of people who will lose their housing or their ability to secure shelter as a result of the economic crisis due to COVID-19 will increase in the next period,” a report by the General Directorate of Social Assistance in Bucharest (DGASMB) noted.
However, these data only refer to people who have accessed the social services offered by the institution. And the lives of many homeless women are far from these statistics.
Portrait of the homeless woman in the eyes of the authorities
Most of the homeless women are over the age of 49, according to the DGASMB report. Cristina Oprea of the Carusel Association team defends a PhD on homelessness from a gender perspective. In recent years, she has conducted several interviews with women living on the streets. Most of them are over 50 years old. This means that their needs are also specific.
“They need accommodation in a residential centre that includes longer term accommodation/housing rather than just overnight shelter. If we are to talk about the social reintegration process for these women who are over 50, it is certainly more difficult for most of them. They will have difficulty finding, for example, a job. They need long-term housing support, which is lacking,” says Cristina Oprea.
Among the most common reasons why some women become homeless are that their birth family can no longer support them, they leave the social protection system (orphanages) and have nowhere to go, they suffer from various illnesses or mental disorders that prevent them from leading a stable lifestyle, they have no job and cannot afford housing, psychologist Amalia Trandafir, coordinator of the Filaret temporary shelter for women, explains to Libertatea.
The centre’s coordinator has also met women who prefer to come to the shelter so as not to be a burden to their families. This is the case with those who have children, who in turn find it difficult to help their mothers. And life doesn’t stop when you fall on hard times. On the contrary.
The state’s only centre exclusively for women
Opened at the end of 2020 and run by DGASMB, the centre is the only shelter run by the authorities that offers accommodation exclusively to women in Bucharest. It currently has 32 places, 12 of which are occupied by women who have been housed there since the beginning of winter. Throughout 2021, there were 77 unique beneficiaries at the Filaret centre. And each story holds pain and personal reality. Of the women who leave the center, some return to the streets, but there are brighter situations. “One younger girl, like this one, in her 40s, left, doing a relationship, another lady stayed on a rent, a younger girl, like this one, on another rent,” lists Trandafir.
Psychologist Amalia Trandafir: There are 10 times fewer women than men, so – statistically speaking, the numbers for homeless people are very dynamic anyway. From month to month in Bucharest you can find 1,300 people, then 1,500, then they migrate again to the countryside, which means you can never get a real figure.
In addition to the services offered to women who stay overnight at the centre, it also has a social shower service. The social shower operates alongside the other four designed for the residents of the centre. Libertatea wrote about it immediately after its opening. But there are also women for whom life on the streets becomes the only way of life they can afford. “Vulnerability is greater among women. Physically, women have a much harder time on the streets, they are more sensitive to the cold, they are more susceptible to physical violence, and not only in the sense of beatings, but also sexual violence,” explains Trandafir.
The Cold. A decade without a roof
Jenny became homeless in 2012 after the death of her next of kin. “I’ve been struggling like this ever since,” she sighs on the stairs where she takes shelter on a December night. The 46-year-old replies resignedly, “That’s it,” when I wish her well. She is bundled in a thick jacket. Underneath, her figure can only weigh a few dozen pounds. All she has now are a few change of clothes and her ID card.
Jenny is one of the few homeless women with ID. Most don’t have papers because they are lost, stolen or expired. Getting a new ID requires resources they don’t have.
“I leave myself in God’s hands, wherever He takes me, I go,” says Jenny on one of the coldest nights of winter. She stays on the stairs where she has taken shelter, and carefully sips hot tea.
Abuses. Two decades without a roof
Monica is 43 years old and has lived on the street for 20 years. She got into this situation after her mother died and her father sold the family flat. “It’s normal to live on the streets. If you have nowhere to live, don’t you live on the street?” says Monica. “I have faced many dangers on the street,” she continues.
She gets up from under the blanket that is the only thing between her and the cold ground, props herself up on an elbow and tells how she has had to fight men over the years to stay alive:
Life on the streets sometimes makes me both bad and good. If you’re not bad on the street, you can’t survive.
Sometimes you have to act, to fight with men. There are dangers that sometimes lurk from within the body. It’s been so many years since Monica’s last medical tests that she can’t remember how many.
“We also need to be tested. We also don’t know if we are carrying some disease or something else and if we can’t carry it. And then they wonder why people are sick.”
Monica is one of the women who have found a partner with whom to share the dangers and difficulties of life. Late last year, the two got engaged. In every walk of life, sometimes it’s easier when you’re not alone.
Menstruation: rags, wipes and old clothes instead of tampons
Among younger homeless women, menstruation also becomes a monthly problem. There are women who, because of the conditions in which they live, either do not have regular menstruation or, on the contrary, have menstruation that lasts for many days and causes them severe pain.
“We found an acute shortage of gynaecological medical services that these women could access free of charge. There are women who are in severe pain and have very heavy periods and would need a place to rest. And they don’t have that place,” says Cristina Oprea.
“I get water from the parks, which was a very big problem during the blockade when the parks were closed because they lost access to potable water. They take water from the parks, heat it as best they can, if they can, and as much as they can, they keep their hygiene to a minimum in these makeshift houses,” explains Irina Vasilecu, president of the association “At the Stop”.
Four years ago, On Stop set out to give a little dignity to women for whom intimate hygiene products are a necessity they can’t afford. Since then, they have been going every month to Bucharest and several rural areas and handing out packages. Now they reach about 400 women a month.
“We also include intimate wipes, which for the average person isn’t the most brilliant way to deal with menstruation, but when you don’t have running water, it’s more than anything, it helps you feel comfortable,” Vasilescu adds. In the absence of proper products, homeless women turn to towels, old clothes or other absorbent products that don’t cost money. Access to toilets is also difficult as the toilets at the North Station cost money.
One lei, two lei – a sum that is often unaffordable for homeless women. And in many others, the free ones in the shopping centres, for example, access for these women is extremely limited, especially in the last year, because they need a green certificate to get in.
A bill to facilitate access to education for disadvantaged youth and to assist certain homeless people by providing a financial incentive to purchase hygiene products is currently before the House of Representatives. This is PL-x No. 372/2021, sponsored by Save Romania Union Member Oana Țoiu.
Personal strategies when there are no national strategies
In the absence of access to health and social services, individual survival strategies remain. For the most part, the resources and strategies that homeless women are able to find depend on themselves and the NGOs that support them, while they remain invisible to national strategies.
For example, the National Health Strategy 2014-2020 is silent on homeless women. “It talks about vulnerable women in general. It stated that family planning services were inadequate, especially for vulnerable women. So even the state was acknowledging shortcomings in this area,” points out Cristina Oprea. As for the National Housing Strategy, it does not exist. At the moment, it is still in draft form, Oprea explains. Libertatea requested a response from the Ministry of Regional Development, Public Administration and EU Funds, but at the time of going to press we had not received it.
“In order to assess the need for social services for homeless women to be included in the draft of the future Strategy for the Development of Social Services and Poverty Reduction in the Municipality of Bucharest for the period 2022-2026, we also asked representatives of NGOs in the area to share their views, as it is clear that without a viable public-private partnership, the goal of reducing the number of women living on the streets seems very distant,” the October 2021 report of the general direction for social assistance in Bucharest said.
Thus, the report continues, a possible list of needed services targeted to the category of homeless older women is as follows:
- Create a uniform system for identifying and classifying homeless women;
- Establish day services in every sector of the capital, with options for body care and hygiene products designed for women;
- Social intervention on the street, adapted for survival and individualized;
- Building shelters with sufficient places in each sector of the capital;
- Creation of special accommodation centres with an important medical component for people living on the streets and suffering from chronic diseases, especially mental illness;
- Increased access to health services, especially gynaecological and family planning services;
- Establish local mechanisms for obtaining the status of an insured person in the health insurance system;
- Uniform practices for obtaining identity documents;
- Setting up free legal aid centres;
- Specialised service for the identification and prevention of prostitution and human trafficking;
- Easy access to second chance education programs.
In the meantime, the living reality remains in the space between the houses, streets and strategies. “I’ll tell you the truth, I might as well feed off the garbage. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s the truth,” says one of the women living on the street in Bucharest.
*Homeless women who need support can also turn to the Grivica-Cismigiu Community Centre, located at 8 St. Constantine Street, or to the Filaret Day Care Centre, 41-41 A, Metropolitan Filaret Street.
This article was first published in Romanian by Libertatea. All photos by Eli Driu.
*Material prepared in cooperation with the Resource Centre for Public Participation and the Carousel Association within the project “The Voice of Homeless Citizens”.