Down and Out in Bucharest
The lives of Romania's third generation homeless youth are literally down the bin.
Noisy boning advocate Nicolae Ceaușescu
Always a saucy devil, Romania’s former Stalinist autocrat Nicolae Ceaușescu was a noisy advocate of boning. He figured that more Romanians meant more power and respect for the nation, so in 1966 he launched his anti-abortion and contraception campaign. He even forbade sex education, classifying textbooks on the subject as state secrets. Anyone with a brain (or who’s read Freakonomics) will tell you that this is a shitty plan. Infant mortality soared, huge families lived in excruciating poverty and thousands of unwanted kids were sent to orphanages.
Once Communism opted out of Eastern Europe a lot of these abandoned kids ended up on the streets. Today, 20,000 people are living outside of Romanian society, many of them the children or grandchildren of Ceaușescu’s forgotten kids.
In central Bucharest, in an abandoned building with broken windows, 50 people have found temporary shelter from the threat of waking up with stitches on their belly and a missing organ, or covered in burning petrol. They call themselves “boschetari” – basically their version or “Yo, nigga!”, a reappropriated slur. They may lose their shelter at any time but, for now, this haunted house is their home.
Ignat and Georgiana
I recently spent a week at this gloomy squat. The first people I made friends with were Ignat and Georgiana, who moved in last winter. Before that they lived in a tent. Georgiana is only 19 and ran away from home when she was 12. She’s been with Ignat, who’s a decade older than her, for a year and she’s carrying his fourth kid. Their room is close to the entrance and they share it with rats that squeaked while we watched an old TV Ignat had borrowed from a friend. They steal their electricity from a pole near the squat and their TV from an unsuspecting neighbour’s antenna. Now they also own a complete collection of VICE magazines.
After a while, the place started filling up with dingy dealers trying to sell everything from stolen cell phones to bed covers and condoms, and brassy hookers rubbing themselves against the men like hungry cats. Ignat told me: “Listen, you’re not safe there. The guys might ask how much you charge for blowjob and I can’t tell them you’re a reporter because they don’t trust journalists.” We decided to leave and go to the park by the main railway station, which is Ignat and Georgiana’s favourite place to hang out.
The park was packed with drunks sleeping on benches and empty-eyed junkies. According to Ignat, they’re the easiest people to rob: “You don’t even need to hit these guys to grab their wallet”. Ignat was raised in an orphanage, and has been convicted for complicity to theft. He has three kids that were placed in an orphanage after their mother ran away to Spain. He opens his wallet to show me pictures of them, “Cool guys, right?” Later some scar-faced, half-naked old man singing with a bottle of cheap liquor in his hand rushed at us. Ignat chased him away. Apparently that guy had recently finished a 20-year sentence for murdering two women and that meant Ignat didn’t want to see him around his girlfriend.
With no running water in the building, Ignat and the others wash themselves in the Dâmbovița, Bucharest’s main river, diving into the water from the top of a billboard. However, the police often chase them away and, if they’re unlucky, take them to the station and fine them for public disorder. They never pay, of course.
Georgiana never bathes in the Dâmbovița; she has a small plastic tub in their room and owns a nail polish and makeup kit. They invited me over for dinner, which meant buying a bag of crisps and coffee from a machine at the corner shop. If they happen to have money they occasionally cook real food but rarely in the summer, as they have no fridge. Drinking water is obtained by begging or stealing from various state institutions that leave their basement windows open.
Ignat introduced me to an old orphanage friend of his, Ovidiu, who takes care of nine children under 14, none of which are his own. Their parents are addicts and Ovidiu’s a nice guy.
Everyday he leads the kids to dumpsters to search for copper, aluminum and paper. The guy at the scrap metal collection centre will usually cheat them, by paying for the copper but “forgetting” to pay for the aluminum. Ovidiu can’t really do anything about it though, he needs to be on good terms with the man. “That’s how you get rich;” says Ovidiu, “you cheat people who don’t have a choice.”
Paper is even worse, it’s so cheap you need to collect about 20kg to get one Euro. This requires long walks around central Bucharest, collecting books, newspapers and food cartons. Certain areas are permanently patrolled by cops so, to be discreet, instead of tipping the paper bins over, one of the kids climbs through the narrow opening to hand Ovidiu the books. When I was there, Alex, a five-year-old, refused at first, but after patient explanations about how you have to take risks to get money for food, juice and candy, he went for it. Soon, the hardback books were piled up on Ovidiu’s cart and the kid washed in a public fountain.
On our way back, Ovidiu shared his meagre payment with some of his less fortunate peers, giving them a cigarette and one RON (€0.15) each, which is enough for bread but not drugs. Like most of the Western world, Ovidiu has come to hate mephedrone, which is sold in Bucharest as a "bath salt" called Pure. A few years ago, he spent his summer working for a building site in the UK and managed to save up €1,700, which he sent to the parents of the nine kids. Obviously, it was all spent on drugs. “At least heroin didn’t destroy all of their reason and kindness; they’d have these nice dreams and everything was fine.
"Legal highs, however, seem to bring out their selfishness and cruelty, maybe because they’re so cheap and you don’t risk going to jail. I’m glad they’ll be banned. Hopefully everyone will get hooked on heroin again and there’ll be peace.”
Every day, after rummaging through garbage for a ridiculous profit of about four Euros, Ovidiu goes back to the squat to cook a vegetable soup to feed eleven people, takes a “shower” in the Dâmbovița and, if he manages to leave the kids at a neighbour’s, he’ll see a woman. There are plenty of them in the park by the station.
None of the people I met had a clue of what would happen tomorrow or where their next meal would come from. Even if they’re good-looking and witty, their chances of capitalising on such qualities are scarce. But they do know how to have fun; they go swimming, style their hair with cheap soda drinks and will find a reason to laugh even when their heads are shoved in a dumpster.