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Bucharest's New Homeless

Children are freezing in tents in the middle of Romania's capital due to a decade-old law and a massive public-housing crisis.
Photos by Mircea Topoleanu

Two rows of tents take up each side of the sidewalk on Vulturilor Street, in the middle of Bucharest. A bunch of children are singing, jumping rope, or drawing. It's as though someone whisked the camp and the kids away from a magical forest in the mountains and pasted them on a dirty street of an Eastern European city next to some broken-down old houses.

It's the middle of winter and, at night, thermometers are one needle point away from freezing point. Sixty-five people—grandfathers and nephews, uncles and cousins, whole families—have lived here since they were evacuated from a nationalized building. Its rightful owner had lost it during communism, and he had now managed to get it back in court.


In 1995, the guys hiding in Europe's ​biggest bomb shelter—under the Romanian Parliament and built by dictator Ceausescu—thought it would be a good idea to pass a law that allowed previously state-owned buildings to be returned to their pre-communism owners, even if that meant throwing a small village out on the streets.

This law gave birth to a new form of Romanian mafia, only this one was dealing with land deeds rather than drugs or human trafficking. Thousands of pretend heirs to former Romanian aristocrats sued the government for everything they could think of—from mountains and crop fields to entire blocks of flats, villas, and houses.

There are currently no official numbers of those evicted from these retroceded homes, because no public institution bothered to take responsibility for them. Still, some unofficial estimations say that 50,000 people were left homeless after the law was passed in 1995. According to the information we got from the local authorities, last year in Bucharest 1800 families filed the necessary papers to receive a social home. That's about five families per day.

These cold numbers include those in the tents on Vulturilor Street. Those who don't own their own tent improvised a shelter, which they padded with carpets and blankets. In one such place lives Samy, 14, who is sitting on the side of the road going through Facebook on a smartphone. Two of his "chicks" posted a picture on his wall with the words: "Feeling wonderful with Samy Hnsm."


"'Hndsm' as in 'handsome', get it?" he says to me. Samy really is "Hndsm"—with his fine cheek bones and his slightly round black eyes, which are covered by bangs, he kind of looks like the Prince of Persia.In another instance, Samy checked in as: "Thrown out on the streets!!!" He tagged all his friends, too.

Samy made his own Rainbow Loom bracelets following instructions he found online. He told me that it's the latest fad on "the internet, brother, on the internet."

​Samy always knew that his family lived in a troubled home. "My folks told me that we were living in our flat 'illegally,' that this wasn't our house, and that we could be thrown out at any time." They ended up there after his mother was fired from the glass factory where she worked in the 1990s. Back then the building belonged to the government. Long years of trials between the State and the building's real owner followed, but time passed quietly in their home.

That is until September 15. Most of the children were at school when an army of armored riot policemen knocked on their doors. Behind them stood a light division of civilians and TV reporters, there to report live on yet another evacuation.

The adults grabbed what they could, placed their carpets on the pavements in front of their homes and that's where they have remained until today. Somebody gave them tents, others taught them how to write slogans against the system on pieces of cardboard, and soon it all turned into a protest against a state that up to this day still hasn't found a way to come to terms with its communist past.


​​In theory, Romanian law says that no homes can be reclaimed until authorities or the new owners find a place for the old tenants to live. But that doesn't matter because the law is full of loopholes. "At the moment, the law doesn't have a deadline for granting social housing or to make someone take responsibility for the lack of it. All the while the number of evacuees keeps growing," said Victor Vozian from the Common Front for the Right to Habitation. In other words, laws made to defend the homeless are simply empty papers, good only for children to draw houses on.

​​Antonio is drawing a house in his math notebook, while sitting next to the tent where he sleeps. On the triangle roof of the house he sketches a flower. "Why did you draw that flower, Antonio?" I ask. "To make it more beautiful! Aaah, excuse me, excuse me, sir. I forgot the chimney."

Antonio calls me "sir" only when he thinks he did something wrong. And then he immediately goes back to calling me "bro." "Hey, bro, want me to draw a villa?" ​​"Antonio, whose notebook is this?" "Mine, bro. I bought it from the store." But on the cover there's another name: Ana Cojocaru, grade 8. "Excuse me, sir!" he says, throwing away the notebook and stomping on it with his foot. He seems ashamed. He got the notebook from a group of volunteers who visit Vulturilor Street every night ever since the families were evicted. They bring them warm home-cooked food made by their friends, and they play with the kids until midnight.


​Antonio never had so many adults talking to him. They come to meet him, hug him, read him Tom and Jerry comics, and give him their cameras so he can take selfies.

Because his folks don't have a stove on which to cook, Antonio eats cold cuts most of the time. Even these are prepared by his 15-year-old sister, Claudia, who takes the supplies from a kind of cupboard they made behind a poster in the tent.

​​Sometimes, when you see him jumping on the mattress in his tent through "the flying monkey hoop," you would think that life on the street was the best thing that could ever happen to him. But even though he's seven, he has moments when he realizes how bad his situation is. "Antonio, winter is coming, and it's going to snow. Do you like snow?" I ask him. "I don't want it to snow, because we will freeze to death," he responds.

​"I thought you said that snow was cool, that you could make some snowmen." I say.

​"With what? I don't even have mittens."

It's not winter yet, but it's already too cold on Vulturilor Street No. 50. I felt it best one day when I arrived there at six in the morning—the wind was cutting through my jacket and pouring over my spine like it was a bucket of ice water. The car thermometer showed 5 degrees Celsius. I could hear coughing from the tents. The parents were coughing and the children were coughing. Soon after I arrived, I heard the tents unzipping and the sleepless kids came out. Despite all this trouble, the parents are still sending them to school.


​ ​Antonio and his brother Gaby, aged nine, have been going to a school for disabled children, even though they're both healthy. Their mom sends them there because that's the only place that ensures they get two warm meals a day.

Their chances of learning properly are obviously slim. Their elder brother has been going to a special ed school for five years, and for the same number of years he's been struggling with reading.

They don't have bathrooms at the campsite either. "Bro, want me to show you where we poo and pee?" Antonio grabbed my hand and started running, like he wanted to show me some magical glade. ​​In the middle of two blocks in the capital of Romania, there's a field of shit. Antonio is running joyfully among them, while holding my camera. He takes a detailed shot of one, like some forensic specialist analyzing the scene of the crime.

​​While the kids play among the tents, the adults are waiting, their gaze always pointed towards the street corner, expecting somebody to come with some real papers for them to sign: rental agreements for social housing.

All sorts of people have come to see them. Once, while Antonio had me read him some comics, a man from the Roma Party came to tell them that the dice were cast: "The mayor owns hotels, and he doesn't give a rat's ass about you," he said. ​​Another time, while Samy was getting ready to go to school, he met a tall man in a suit, who wanted to take pictures of them on his phone. "He is a Russian citizen," is what his translator said. Apparently he had just arrived in Romania for a cultural exchange on the subject of "homeowner rights."


"We will raise awareness about this internationally," said the translator without really translating and then excused himself and his Russian colleague, because they were running late for their conference.

​​The weekend came and Bucharest saw its first snowfall. It's the kind of snow that Antonio didn't want, because he "didn't have mittens." I went to bring him some blankets, but all I could find was a total mess. Instead of Samy's shelter, there was a pile of blankets, cloth and broken tent skeletons. Antonio's tent was still standing. It had miraculously survived a wind that tore entire trees from their roots in the rest of Bucharest. Inside, Antonio was shivering in his sleep, under six blankets. His older brothers were trying to keep him warm with their bodies.

Claudia, his big sister, was awake with sleepy eyes. She told me from under her cap and hood that her brothers had just fallen asleep after being up all night. They put all the clothes they owned on and simply sat in the dark, keeping each other awake, out of fear that they would die of hypothermia in their sleep.