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Coronavirus crisis hits Romania's 'invisible' homeless

An estimated several thousand homeless people in Bucharest face an especially tough time during the pandemic
An estimated several thousand homeless people in Bucharest face an especially tough time during the pandemic Daniel MIHAILESCU AFP
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Bucharest (AFP)

Roaming Bucharest's deserted streets under the coronavirus lockdown no longer turns up scraps of food, with Romania's homeless instead facing insults and deeper isolation.

Largely denied any government help, an estimated several thousand homeless people face an especially tough time in the capital of one of the EU's poorest countries.

While elsewhere in Europe, initiatives have been launched to support those in need, some aid organisations in Romania have been forced to close their doors due to a lack of masks and disinfectant.

"We are the invisible. We don't exist for the government," said Alina Constantin, 38, who squats in an abandoned house in Bucharest.

- 'Come on, get out!' -

Homeless people are treated by some as a threat -- even more so since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

"Come on, get out! With this virus going around, you giving us a disease is all we need," a bus passenger was heard saying to an elderly homeless woman recently.

The woman picked up her two bags of possessions and got off the bus as more insults followed.

In London, two hotels have been requisitioned to house homeless people for the next few months, while emergency accommodation centres have been set up in France.

And in Vienna, an online campaign has been launched to support some 350 needy people whose income has dried up as they are no longer able to sell a street newspaper due to the confinement measures.

With its close to 20 million people, Romania has reported more than 1,000 infections, with 17 deaths.

Romanians have been told to stay home and wash their hands regularly -- measures which for many homeless are simply impossible.

- Finding shelter -

Samusocial helps around 1,600 homeless people a year, including families with young children, but has been forced to suspend its activities after pharmacies ran out of surgical masks, gloves and disinfectant.

"It's too dangerous for our social workers and our volunteers," the NGO's manager Sabina Nicolae told AFP.

"But we remain in contact with those in need... We tell them which canteens and homes are still open."

At the Pallady night shelter, a lockdown has been introduced to protect about 200 homeless people there, with no one else allowed to enter.

Only the Parada foundation in Bucharest, which offers hot meals and the opportunity to shower, has refused to close its doors.

"We have stopped our other activities (such as circus lessons for homeless children) to devote ourselves to the urgent needs of our clients," director Ionut Jugureanu told AFP.

Thirty young mothers with children under two who live in makeshift huts go there to get powdered milk.

Earlier this week a dozen homeless people, including many women, shared a lunch donated by a caterer.

"We are scared (about the virus) but there's nothing we can do," Katalin Kozak, 48, said.

Kozak and her daughter Florina, 27, have lived for 10 years in a shack in Bucharest, without electricity or running water.

Kozak's other daughter and a son have died from illness in the past two years.

"No one helped me with the funerals. Wherever we go, doors close," she said, while putting on one of the protective masks distributed by a social worker from Parada.

Another woman, who only gave her name as Stefania, says that at Parada "we are like family" and treated well.

"Anyway, we can't fight fate... But it feels good to speak, to empty your heart. Otherwise we would go crazy," said the 27-year-old, who ran away from home when she was 10 and also squats in an abandoned house in Bucharest.

Offering a ray of hope, the Romanian government on Tuesday asked district town halls to identify those in need and provide them with shelter and food.

But the setting up of reception centres will take time, and in Bucharest, the temperature currently dips below 0 degrees Celsius (32 Fahrenheit) at night.

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