They start life with a family and a home. But along the way, the fragile nature of human existence deals them overwhelming setbacks. Whether it’s a bad decision, a sudden loss or sheer stubbornness, they find themselves with nothing.
Some find themselves living in a shelter. In a room like Room 32, at the St. Johns Integrated Social Services Centre for Adults in Bucharest, Romania.
I spent a week with the residents of Room 32 and realized this could happen to any of us.
“What I disliked most about being homeless was that I always smelled of smoke.”
That’s how Nelu begins his tale. He is one of five men living in Room 32 whom I visited numerous times during a very cold week in January.
Nelu is 66 and spent 12 years living on the streets. Yet, he has nothing in common with the people we generally label as “homeless.” He’s clean and well-kept. He enjoys tidiness and describes himself as a homemaker.
“I’ve slept under balconies, in train stations and in the basements of apartment buildings. The last place I was living in was a cemetery, sleeping in the catacombs. When you’re on the streets, you have to live by the rules of the streets. The governing rule is the fist.” He scrunches his hand into a tight fist as he looks directly at us, waiting to see our reaction.
Room 32 is decorated with origami, gifted by a female cinematographer who used to live on the first floor. Nelu loves flowers and recently picked up decorative pebbles from the grocery store parking lot to place in his flowerpots.
Nelu is a locksmith by trade and carpenter by passion. He shows us a table that he made out of raw wood. There is a little bench beside it, where he invites us to sit.
He’s trying very hard to be a good host. He serves us with some crunchy snacks and orange juice. He’s a bit noisy, but creates a welcoming atmosphere.
Valeriu, one of Nelu’s roommates, jumps up to offer us some hot tea.
“The mugs are clean, you know. I added some lemon,” says Valeriu as he puts the mugs down on the table, beside a bottle of Hellas beer. After he stirs in some sugar, he leaves the spoon on top of one of the mugs.
“The number on my bed pisses me off!” bellows Nelu suddenly. “I’m number 167. Just like in jail.”
He points angrily to the numbers, exposing the cuts and scars on his arms, along with an old tattoo of a woman carrying a crown. She represents his mother, even though it’s just a symbolic tattoo.
He can’t remember what his mother looked like. She died when he was six years old.
Nelu was born in Bucharest, but ran away in the eighth grade. His father was brutally strict. He ended up in the home of his uncle, Costache Sava, the former director of the Arpechim Refinery in Pitești. His uncle brought him to work in the factory, while Nelu took night classes to graduate from high school.
Nelu met the love of his life at a monastery near Curtea de Argeș, while he was in the military. Eventually they married and settled down in Bucharest where they had children. The Communists assigned Nelu to work at Vulcan, a Romanian manufacturer of power plant boilers.
Nelu’s life changed when Vulcan sent him to work outside Romania. He spent time in Jordan, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq.
We were in Mosul, in Iraq, when the Syrians began to bomb us because they had no idea what we were doing there. We were working for Vulcan, making central heating units in a military equipment factory. We were not there to fight. Curiously, there were also thousands Romanian seamstresses working in Iraq.
We escaped from Mosul and slowly made our way to Ankara. We were afraid that they would kill us. And now look where I ended up. In this shelter.”
He was working in East Germany during the Revolutions of 1989. He celebrated for the Germans, celebrated for the Romanians, then headed west to Cologne for good paying construction work.
While working in Cologne, Nelu fell 40 meters off a scaffold and spent seven months in a German hospital. Unable to work, Nelu returned to Romania. He found his door locked. After 13 years of marriage, his wife had left him for his best friend.
He remarried a woman who died in 2002. This was when life overwhelmed him. He lost his mother as a child, was bombed in Iraq, was severely injured in Germany, his first wife left him, and his second wife died.
Nelu sold his home, turned to alcohol and alienated himself from his children.
“I’m extremely proud of my children. My son is a boss in the police force. My daughter is a manager in England, at Parallel 45 Design Group. I’m proud of them. I’m the bad one. I’m the guilty one. I created a lot of problems for them. I haven’t seen them in 12 years.” Since then, Nelu has spent most of his time on the streets.
The 386 bus stop, the fifth bench, across from St Nicholas Church, was my home for many years. That’s where I began to beg.
Then I found a new building on Taberei Street. For two years, I lived in the basement. After two years, the property manager and building president came down into the basement to do some repairs and found me. I had 32 pairs of shoes!
When they saw all of my clothes hanging on the pipes, they froze. Thankfully, they saw that I spoke nicely and wasn’t doing anything wrong, so they left me alone. However, after four years, the building’s administration changed and I was forced to leave.
Why did you chose to live on the streets for so many years?
I wanted to punish myself.
What made you change your mind?
Something trivial. I was at the cemetery with a colleague – also a bum. We smelled really bad. I really wanted to smell better, so I went to St. Johns.
The Move to St. Johns
In addition to a $150 monthly welfare payment, Nelu has a small business selling used books.
His inventory of old books is neatly organized according to size. He’s read them all. But his heart belongs to Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.
It’s nice and warm in Room 32, but Nelu has his bags packed. He doesn’t know when an order will come from “above” to free the bed. The rules have continuously changed in the last few years.
“You know, I’m not a bum! I’m an APWAH,” exclaims Nelu. APWAH means Adult Person Without a Home.
Valeriu (photo) returns, emotional.
You know, you stirred something in me. Initially, I didn’t want to be interviewed by you because I had just found some inner peace. But I changed my mind after I read this Sandra Brown book. You know what I am finally discovering at 66 years of age? Wisdom.
Valeriu is a mechanical engineer by trade. He’s been living in the shelter since 2014. A cousin brought him in.
Homelessness began when he was working in Rome. He was trying to save money for his daughters’ university tuition.
I slept on the streets of Rome pretty often. But I always made sure to choose a spot somewhere near a police station because they don’t rob anyone near there.”
His life began with a good childhood in Pașcani.
“I got along well with my parents, but mom was very possessive. I became aware of this later, but don’t judge her for it.”
His favorite childhood activity was folk dancing. He still dances tango, waltz and has a deep connection to the rhythm of music.
I went to many clubs after turning 50. I became the animator for two clubs. I would energize the crowd and get everyone to start drinking. Then I’d station myself in front of the DJ, start dancing, and get everyone on the dance floor.
He wasn’t so brave in high school. He graduated high school in Oltenița, where he fell in love with a girl named Emiliana.
I fell in love with her appearance. I always liked the way she looked. There was nothing about her I didn’t like. But I was never with her, I only wished for it.
When it was time for him to go to university, he was accepted into the Faculty of Construction in Bucharest. He chose construction because of fear. Fear of not having a job.
After university, he started work at a Hydro-construction plant.
My first job was at the Costești dam, in the Botoșani area. You have no idea what kind of chills some workplaces give you. Once, I had to walk for six hours in the snow to get to a village that didn’t have water.
In Botoșani, he met a French teacher named Nuța. He married her at age 29, despite his mother’s opposition.
Then life got hard. Problems at work, the death of his parents, and depression.
“I have two girls: Oana Diana and Cristina. Each have two children of their own. My wife and I divorced about 10 years ago. She left me so devastated that I didn’t read the divorce agreement for five years. When I finally read the papers, I saw that Cristina was not my daughter.
I maintain a relationship with my daughters through text messages. We talk at Christmas, Easter and on birthdays. I’m happy for my daughters that they are where they are. I’m happy they have my telephone number.” I don’t want to say that I was a saint. I did some unreasonable things. I know that I have problems. My cousin found me a doctor who I’ve been seeing for the last three to four years. I have Bipolar Affective Disorder.
After a few months of living in the shelter, Valeriu met Sanda. She also lives in the shelter. He hopes to rebuild his life with her.
“She is older than me and it’s a good thing. She knows what marriage means. I think we’re experiencing a beautiful thing together.
Her story is a lot sadder than mine. She is a hero with a pure heart. At my age, what else could you possibly ask for than a person with a good heart who cares for you?”
Valeriu is currently looking for a job. He would like to start renting a place with Sanda in the spring.
APWAH, means Adult Person Without a Home, an acronym used in the social services sector. (In Romania, PAFA)
According to the statistics published by the Samusocial Association, almost half of the people we call homeless end up on the streets as a result of a divorce or family conflict.
Most of these people lost their jobs when
state-owned business failed, explains Alina Mirea, a social worker at Samusocial.
“A person ends up on the streets when their social network is exhausted. Most of us, when we go through tough times, have a brother, a friend or a neighbor who we can go to for support. If a person doesn’t find support during tough times or someone to pick them up after they fall, they will end up on the streets,” says Alina Mirea.