Having a roof over one’s head

Matea Grgurinović was awarded the Journalism Award "from below" for her story asking whether having a home is a basic right.

19. February 2018
Magazine > Feature > Having a roof over one’s head

“For eight months before I found out about Jukićeva (a shelter run by the Sisters of Mercy) I spent most of my time riding on night trams and buses. It is mostly OK until Thursday, and then, oh boy. On Fridays and Saturdays [it gets] so drunk, so loud. You can’t wait till Sunday just to get some rest.”

Željko spent three years living homeless in Zagreb. At the moment, he is selling Ulični fajter (Street Fighter), a magazine for the homeless and about homelessness published by the Fajter (Fighter) Association. Part of the sales proceeds goes to the vendor, and part towards printing the next issue. The magazine is financed entirely by own funds, without the help of any projects. The funds are raised through selling the magazine, organizing charity exhibitions, collaborations, and donations collected by the Association’s president, Mile Mrvalj.

Željko and Mile’s stories are typical of people who end up on the street. Mile used to own a gallery in Sarajevo but it folded, and Željko was laid off after having worked for twenty years at a brickyard in Vinkovačko Novo Selo. He was left without a job, never received his severance pay and had a loan he could no longer repay. All this was exacerbated by his dysfunctional family relationships and made him leave his place of birth.

According to the study The portrait of social support of the homeless in Croatia, the first comprehensive piece of research into this issue in Croatia, the homeless are mostly men (81%), with a vocational school education (63%), in most cases in the industrial or trade sector. The reasons they identify for their homelessness are structural – long-term unemployment, insufficient community support, and financial insecurity. 72% of all homeless persons, who were living in homeless hostels or night shelters throughout Croatia at the time of the study, took part in it.

Journalism Award “from below”

The Journalism Award “from below” for respectful poverty coverage was created in 2010 as a project of the Austrian Anti Poverty Network. It is aiming to promote a kind of journalism which reflects the many facets of poverty, treats people concerned in a respectful way, allows their voices to be heard, lets their realities become visible and examines the societal causes of poverty. The prize “from below” is designed by people experiencing poverty and by journalists. The jury exclusively consists of people experiencing poverty.

Since 2015, with the support of the ERSTE Foundation and the EAPN (European Anti-Poverty Network), an international dissemination of the prize has been in progress and workshops have been organised. Most recently, the Journalism Award “from below” was presented for the first time in Hungary, Croatia, Finland and Iceland. This article by Matea Grgurinović was awarded in the print category.

“When I got fired, I could no longer keep up with the loan payments and there was a family row so I decided to leave; I went to Mali Lošinj to work as an auxiliary construction worker. I spent eight months there; I went there four times and I didn’t receive my wages.”

The catamaran fare from Rijeka to Mali Lošinj is 40 HRK, which was all that Željko had, so he travelled from Vinkovačko Novo Selo by fare dodging on express trains. However, his job in Mali Lošinj did not end well, no wages again. “So I decided to go to Zagreb ‘to seek my fortune there’. But, when I got there, due to circumstances, I didn’t have a place to sleep.” Željko therefore spent the first eight months sleeping rough, out in the open during the day, and on trams and buses at night. “Mostly between Črnomerec and Savski most. You have your tram route, so you just ride it from one end to the other.”

At least it is warm…

“It is warm, that’s true, but your feet suffer the most, you know. Because you can’t take off your shoes. You dare not take off your shoes.”

Re-establishing social networks

Nino Žganec, an associate professor at the Social Work Study Centre and president of the Croatian Anti-Poverty Network, confirms that homelessness frequently occurs due to major life changes, as in Željko’s case – loss of a job, divorce, inability to pay back loans, disrupted family relationships, loss of housing due to natural disasters, etc. There are very few cases where homelessness is a matter of personal choice.

In the case of such momentous life changes, it is the social networks – family and friends – that are crucial in preventing a person from ending up on the street. Žganec claims that social networks have an “extraordinary role in prevention” and all “potential risks and causes of homelessness can be overcome more easily with the help of a social network to which we belong and that is ready to support us through times of crisis”. The community plays a key role even when a person has a homeless status; the stigma that the homeless face is enormous, finding themselves in a situation “that the community judges more harshly because it does not understand or even try to understand it, meaning that it is tragically and unjustifiably attributed to the person’s inability to have proper control over their life,” Žganec continues.

Once you get caught in this vicious cycle, it is extremely difficult to get out. As a result, some people end up staying in the system for ten years or more. The feeling of isolation is prevalent. Thus one of the major tasks before the homeless and those who work with them is to re-establish their social network. The importance of this is corroborated by data from the The portrait of social support of the homeless in Croatia, which shows that the homeless identify the support of the state and society as the key factor in getting out of homelessness. The social network and acquaintances that Željko found in Zagreb enabled him to find out about the shelter run by the Sisters of Mercy and get off the street, ensure that his needs are met, and search for work while having a roof over his head.

Roommates from an abandoned building

Both Željko and Mile were homeless, and already knew each other from selling Ulične svjetiljke (Street lamps) magazine together and “sharing” a dilapidated house as “roommates”. Before they were able to extricate themselves from poverty by selling Ulične svjetiljke and Ulični fajter magazines, they had spent three years sleeping rough. The average duration of homelessness in Croatia is five years. Although homelessness is generally seen as a temporary problem, Nino Žganec emphasises that long-term homelessness is “unfortunately the rule and not the exception”. According to the study’s findings, the average period of homelessness is for about five years. However, this figure can give the wrong impression about the real situation, in which many experience decades of homelessness”.

Mile Mrvalj highlights the stigma that the homeless have to live with. They spend years without any support system and find it difficult to return to normal life. The Fajter Association is trying to help and is contacted daily by people looking for assistance. Mrvalj says that mental health issues, such as severe depression, represent the biggest problem because many of the homeless used to live normal lives – they had a family, a home and a job but suddenly lost everything because they could not repay their loans or guarantees that they provided to someone else or just because they took one wrong turn in life. He says that many of them start drinking due to depression. Alcoholism is therefore a result rather than a cause of homelessness. This stigmatises them further. People say: “That’s what he’s like.”

“Before I was homeless I could not imagine eating a meal without washing my hands first. And now, what good is washing my hands? I used to have a beard and moustache before, but I trimmed them and kept them neat, and now what good does it do me? None.”

ReStart – the problem of short-term project activities

Comprehensive psychological and social support is what the homeless need because the problems they face mostly go well beyond not having a roof over their head. There are 14 homeless hostels and night shelters in 11 cities throughout Croatia that provide assistance, but their capacity is limited and insufficient. Olja Družić Ljubotina, a professor at the Social Work Study Centre and author of the study The portrait of social support of the homeless in Croatia, says that the help that the homeless need is not readily available and that there is “a need for better support and service provision geared towards employment support for the able-bodied homeless, given that they are mostly long-term unemployed who have over time lost some of the working skills that they had acquired. In addition, much more psychological and social support is needed in conjunction with continuous professional guidance to empower them and help them with social reintegration”.

Re-start – supporting the homeless in entering the labour market, was one of the projects aimed at helping the homeless to actively participate in the labour market. However, although the project itself was successful (seven homeless people found jobs), Professor Družić Ljubotina said that the duration of the project activity was too short and stressed that “it is necessary that such a service, aimed at increasing the employability of the homeless, become part of an integral system that provides this group with continuous support of this kind”. The first step is providing them with material assistance – resolving their housing issues – and then providing them with all other aspects of assistance that they may need: labour market participation, psychological and social support, and training.

Legal and institutional barriers

16% of the homeless have no health insurance. Neither Mile nor Željko have health coverage. Jokingly, they say that it means they are healthy because only the chronically ill who claim social benefits have the right to free health insurance. Mile goes on to say that if he or Željko were to go to the doctor’s, they might find a whole host of things wrong with them so it is better this way.

This is just one of the problems that the homeless encounter (as do other social benefit recipients). Until 2012 the homeless were not entitled to an ID card because, under the Residence Act in effect at that time, a place of residence was needed in order to obtain the ID card, which was something that the homeless (evidently) did not have. The new Act (OG 144/12) has amended this so that the homeless can now use the addresses of shelters and similar facilities as their place of residence. Nevertheless, they still face many problems. If there is a problem with the certificate of residence, Professor Družić Ljubotina points out that “the users are not able to obtain their personal ID or exercise their right to health insurance, to register as unemployed or enjoy other rights to which they are entitled”.

The professor also raised concerns about a provision in the 2013 Social Care Act, according to which the homeless who live in shelters do not have the right to claim the guaranteed minimum social assistance benefit. In essence, the legislator believes that the shelters provide for all their needs (accommodation, food, clothes and shoes) so that there is no need for the guaranteed minimum benefit of 800 HRK. This effectively prevents people who live in shelters from actively searching for a job, for example (because they do not have the money for the bus fare to their place of work or to buy clothes for an interview), or from visiting their family members who live elsewhere.

All of the above underlines the extent to which the institutions do not acknowledge homelessness as a real problem. This is further supported by the fact that homelessness as a social category was included in the Social Care Act only a few years ago, which constitutes its “formal acknowledgment as a fact and a phenomenon”, Žganec claims. He further points out that “you just need to add up the total funds needed to resolve this issue and compare this to numerous other social allocations that are not as urgent a priority as the sheer survival of a person whose basic rights to housing, food, clothes and shoes and everything else that makes them a human being are uncertain”. The funds are there; what is lacking is the will to tackle the issue.

Original in Croatian. First published on 13 November 2017 on
Translation from Croatian to English by Susanne Oroz.

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