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Lorand Szakacs: The group „Right to the City” fights against stigmatisation of the poor people in Timișoara

What needs to be done in Romania where the right to housing is an ever more important issue, while homeless people and beggars become more and more in numbers in the richest cities

Lorand Szakacs (photo: Vladimir Mitev)

Lorand Szakacs is a member of the group “Right to the City”, which deals with the editing and printing of the “Stradă (Street) Magazine. The organisation and the magazine deals with the right to housing and fights for human attitude towards homeless people, beggars and the poor in Timișoara and in Romania. According to the official data there are more than 1200 homeless people in Timișoara – a city of immense richness in Romania. Apparently, the poverty problem is seen as a threat to law and property. Citizens are advised in the public transport and at the road intersections not to give money to beggars and to mind their own pockets. But according to the group ”Right to the City” the poverty problem demands a more social and humane attitude of society and administration. Lorand presents his organization, its struggle and the grave situation of the people on the street in an interview that he has given Baricada.  

How have you come up with the idea about „The Street Magazine”? What is the professional profile of your group’s members?

We are six people. One of us is a theatral critic, there are two IT engineers, one of us deals with fine arts, we have one architect in the group and one reserarcher in theoretical physics. We are people with more liberal professions from the so-called creative industry. On the other hand, we are „self-educated” left-wingers. Four of us belong to the same generation – born in 1989-1990, while two are elder. Only two of us have their origins in Timișoara,  the rest have come here because of university or work. Our group started to form last year in August. In November 2016 we organised some street actions. We gathered clothes, we distributed food.

Are you allowed to distribute food on the streets of Timișoara?

One is not allowed to cook on the street. We prepared the food at home and came with a bag so that we could give it to those who need it.

Our magazine is  inspired by the Bucharest newspaper ”Street”, which existed in the past. For us the situation is too obvious. There is a social stigma over those who don’t have home. We fight against it.

I saw notes in the public transport that advise the passengers to protect their pockets, because there are thiefs. There are notes at the crossroads that command the people not to give money to beggars. How serious is the problem with those in margins?

It is in fact very serious. We want to take this problem to public’s attention. People living in the center don’t quite see this problem. There are around 1200 adults who live on the streets. At the same time there is a strong discourse against the poor. We confront an extremely individualistic attitude, which believes that if someone falls away from society “it is only his fault”.

We understand that people don’t like it when we speak about poverty. We also direct public’s attention to the problem of housing – not only to the lack of it, but also to the problem of precarious housing.

I understand that most of all you try to raise society’s consciousness…

Yes, this is our first goal.

Have you considered other steps – e.g. legislative or social initiatives?

We make everything within the limits of the time that remains free after our work. But we are very aware of our goals and we approach seriously our activities. We find understanding and support in different places in Timișoara. One of these places is the local for social economy Reciproc. They helped us a lot as they organised a social cafe that gathered various groups which want the amelioration of homeless people’s problems. They also offered us a place where we could gather clothes or to present “The Street Magazine”.

But if we speak about national legislative initiatives, we do this through „Blocul pentru Locuire” (The Housing Block) – a formation that unites different local groups like ours. We try to synthesise solutions for the local housing problems at national level through „The Housing Block”.

What is obtainable with regard to housing? It is usually believed that construction and buying of apartments should take place in the private sector. What are you fighting for then? Do you insist on a greater participation of state or community in the construction and distrbitution of homes?

The ideal case is if solutions are created and supported by the local community. But we have still a long road to walk until there. The need for participation of state is the most evident one. For example, limits on rents’ price hikes could be enforced. In big cities such as Cluj Napoca and Timișoara where people from other cities and villages come rents become quite large.

What rents are paid in Timișoara?

The moderate rents in Timișoara – for an apartment, comprised of one room and a kitchen, reach 200 euro monthly, especially in the “central area”. There are many employees who can’t find something cheap. Often, people who are in their 20s stay together with colleagues in larger apartments. I also live with somebody.

Think about it – the minimal net salary is 1065 lei (232 euro). People with small income can’t overcome the threshold of rents.

I understand the need to be put a limit upon rents. But what demands are possible to be fulfilled?

There are many things that can be done. Among them could be the use of the many unpopulated buildings that have stayed like that for tens of years for creation of housing places. Legislation is very weak on this issue. Unpopulated buildings must be expropriated so that housing places are created.

There are many things that can be done. But in Romania even the small steps are hard to make. At this moment we want to have most of all a cultural effect – to put the problem of housing in the public conscious and to change the stigmatising attitude towards homeless people and towards poverty in general.

How do you educate yourself on legal issues about the problems you try to resolve? Do you have legal experts that could teach you about laws?

Generally, we are self-educated. First, we try to read laws, then we may ask somebody for more information.

„The Housing Block” sent the Romanian parliament in the summer a legislative call which insists on the need for construction and easier acces to social housing. Which are the political forces that are open to „Housing Block”s demands?

None of the political forces is open to us. There are individual parliamentarians who are interested in our initiatives. We receive understanding in the circles of „Demos” Party among the political forces outside the parliament. We believe that Demos will be in a certain future moment the only party we would be able to talk with. They don’t need to be persuaded a lot. There are a few parlamentarians – not more than 20, who understand „Housing Block”’s demands. Among them is Florin Manole (PSD), Adrian Dohotaru (USR), Florina Presadă (USR).

What happens with those 1200 homeless people in Timișoara when winter comes?

This is the problem. They improvise. There are two shelters which function any time of the year and where around 240 people could be housed. In the winter another shelter gets opened, but the conditions there are very bad. Practically, it only lets people not to die because of cold outside. But these shelters capacity is not sufficient. The number 1200 is only official. There are people who are not included in statistics and these data refer only to adults. Children are even more vulnerable. They are not allowed to be housed at shelters, because they are younger than 18 years. Their situation is tragic.

Aren’t there also homeless people who avoid going to shelters?

Yes. When we started to write about the problems with shelters and social housing, we tried to explain the fact that the problem is only related to the improvement of physical conditions.

When we go to the railway station and speak with the homeless people, they say: „We like freedom! Here are my friends!” For example, one of these shelters accepts people only until 19 o’clock. After that it shuts doors until the morning. Those who work until late in the evening automatically get excluded, because they often end their work day and can reach the shelter only after the closing time. Those who have problems with alcohol also are not allowed to stay there.

There are cases when homeless people are retained by local police for 12 hours so that they could be „interrogated” about various stupid stuff. They are asked why they live on the street and are kept in bad conditions. Homeless people call the place where they are retained „pen”. It is the court of police headquarters. While they are in the arrest, they don’t receive food. If they are lucky, they receive water. After they are released, they may miss the entering hours of the shelter.

Which are the greatest problems of homeless people?

It is difficult to make a list. An important problem is security. Homeless people say: „Let at least local police leave us alone”.

In „The Street Magazine” you write also about homeless people who work, but do that without a contract, in bad conditions and for insignificant payment…

Yes. They can’t even work legal. In order to have an identity card in Romania, they must have an address. Homeless people don’t have propriety and must lie to the system, in order to obtain an identity card.

The problem with obtaining identity card must be resolved through a change in legislation so that the requirement for residence is taken away. Then it would be necessary for man only to confirm his identity before the state – name, photo, personal identity number, and nothing more. There was an initiative of this kind, but I think it has been dead for some time.

We may think about a legislative initiative in this sphere – legal amendments, which we could announce through „The Street Magazine”.

Where do you distribute the magazine?

In progressive zones – in social centers, in bookshops, which are more open towards our activity.  In the bookshop „La Două Bufnițe”, in Reciproc, and so on.

What would we be able to read in the second issue of „The Street Magazine”?

In the second issue of the magazine we will write about the housing problem, trying to go a little bit away from Timișoara region. We will probably write about a Serbian organisation that does something with regard to the housing problem. We are interested in people who have similiar activity in other countries. It is very important to understand that we talk about problem, which is both global and local.

If we speak about international relations, do you find international support and do you have contacts at EU level?

For the time being we don’t have such things. At the local level our magazine is encouraged by the CRIES association of Mihaela Vețean from Reciproc. The magazine doesn’t cost a lot. In fact, we haven’t legally established ourselves yet. We finance our activities with our own money. We have covered around half of the expenditures for the second issue thanks to donations. At national level we have the support of “The Housing Block”.

How well are you presented in media? Is there interest towards your group?

I don’t think we have been presented negatively in media. But so far there have been only some four articles about us.

The problem is that local press demonises beggars and salutes policemen who “cleanse the beggars’ nests”. We think that one is not allowed to write this way about the poor in any city and especially in a city which has the pretentions to be European capital of culture (Timișoara will have this statute in 2021 – note of the editor). We don’t think that the problem of the poor will be resolved if they are pushed towards the city’s periphery – something that takes place at this moment.

Do you think of making contrapropaganda?

We make this through Facebook and through the magazine. So far we have been doing it only there.

Finally, how homeless people see your activities? Are you understood corectly at least by the people whose rights you want to affirm?

Yes, we meet no resistance among the people of the street. They are open to talk with us. But the problem is that many of them expect us to resolve more than we can. We often hear: „send the magazine to Buchrest, so that all the people know what local police and the mayor do”. We are always put in a situation, in which we have to put limits to their enthusiasm. People learn about their problems and see them. But those in power don’t care about them. The people in power will never care.

Vladimir Mitev
Journalist with focus international news and analysis. He has worked for the Tema Magazine between 2008 and 2015. He has founded the bilingual Romanian-Bulgarian blog ”The Bridge of Friendship”. His articles and translations have been published by the BGNES agency, the magazines of A-specto and Economy, the blog of ”Solidary Bulgaria” and others. He has published also in the Romanian magazines of Decât o Revista și Q Magazine, and in the Romanian left-wing portal Critic Atac.

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