Skopje citizens “forgotten” in winter nights

Skopje citizens “forgotten” in winter nights

The homeless are our fellow citizens whom the system has forgotten and its institutions that are supposed to take care of them.

I was coming back home from a conference that had taken place in the old part of Skopje and was rushing to get home as soon as possible, reproaching myself for having to walk that night at -5 C° even though it was a walk less than 2km.

Winters are cold whereas clothes for such occasions are not that warm since it are intended for closed and heated spaces, and not for the Balkan winter. That is why I do not like winter because going to the store for bread requires dressing up as if you were going skiing.

While I was contemplating this and crossing the boulevard, I saw a man sleeping on the planter of the zebra crossing. He was covered by a blanket and a hat on his head, beside him was a box in case someone took pity on him and wanted to give him food or something.

I crossed the street and went back, got my phone and took a picture of what I found upsetting.

Is it possible that in the 21st century we still behave/act barbarically and not take care of these people as if they did not exist? I did not dare wake him up and remind him of how cold it was. When I got home, I wrote a text and posted the picture on Facebook criticizing the competent institutions and demanding solutions for such issues, as well as action taken by the City Red Cross.

No one is indifferent when it comes to low temperatures and hundreds of citizens had shared the picture in two days. Sandra, a fellow worker from the Red Cross of Skopje commented on the post and sent a mobile team to transfer the man to a daily reception center. He turned the offer down, so they gave him warm clothes.

One night had passed and he was still there lying down in the same place refusing to be taken to the reception centre for homeless people. I asked him why he would not go, and Borche replied he felt safer in the streets rather than at the center where there was no privacy, people stole from one another, assaulted one another and finds cigarette smoke disturbing since he has asthma.

Two answers

I was asking myself who many people there were, surviving on the streets, refusing to go to the reception center because of justified reasons or psychological issues, I arrived at two answers.

The first one is that I should not care if this was their choice since there are reception centers, and the second one that there should not be an excuse for not caring. We are humans above all and we must not watch all human being go hungry or freeze, no matter what. At least one could go when it is extremely cold, hand them some hot tea and soup so they could get warm for a moment and know that they have not been forgotten.

Therefore, the next day I called my fellow workers and we came up with a plan i.e. a humanitarian action named “Give Warmth” and we called on the citizens to join us as volunteers or to contribute with donations as well as to provide information on which locations the homeless could be reached. Being humanitarian on Facebook is easy, but you need to prove it in practice. This is an opportunity to put emphasis on this issue, engage the public so everyone can join for a good cause.

There came the first donations and volunteers, and we were also joined by another humanitarian organisation from Skopje. We meet every night at 21h at Legis’ HQ where we make tea, soup, noodles or even sandwiches brought by the volunteers, especially the young Skopje lawyer Janaki or Father Oliver from Sv. Spas, a humanitarian organisation, which joined us from the first night. Then off we go to visit the forgotten ones.

Besides Borche, who sleeps in the middle of the boulevard itself and has been doing so for the past 13 years, there are three other homeless people sleeping under the bridge in the Old Bazaar, two persons over 70 years old sleeping in a abandoned bus, one sleeping in an underground passage, two in a kiosk, whose owner let them stay. Then, there is one sleeping in an abandoned factory and he holds two university degrees, and another two accommodated in a kiosk, and so on and so forth.

However, one particular case is quite complicated, since the man sleeps every night in a different place, so sometimes we do not manage to find him.

An initiative has been undertaken

The majority of them do not go to the reception center for the same reason, except from time to time in order to take a shower and change clothes. They have no income, no health care, abandoned by their families and the system and live off people’s charity.

The homeless are our fellow citizens and have been forgotten by the system, institutions that are supposed to look after them. And, when the institutions fail, then come the citizens and their initiatives to help the “forgotten”. Another initiative that deserves praise is the one called “Retweet a Meal” which gathers food every Saturday in the city centre and distributes it to those in need.

In order to solve this issue, we are going to meet with the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, the Red Cross of Skopje and the civil society sector that aids this category of citizens. We need to discuss various questions and issues, as well as hear the opinion of the homeless and what they need. The reception centre at the outskirts of the city is certainly not a solution, with no privacy, but a place where anyone could be accommodated separately and in safety because their whole life is in one bag which they do not want to share.

Some of them try to earn money picking up plastics or iron and this is exactly why they do not wish to be out of town. What is more, those having psychological conditions need to be in psychiatric institutions which was the lawyer Janaki’s idea in order to protect them from getting abused in the streets.

There will be many other questions and many alternatives, we only need good will on the part of the competent institutions. Until then, we have a good example set by Skopje citizens and, hopefully, it will be followed by other cities so as not to leave “the forgotten ones” to freeze in the long and unbearably cold winter nights.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily support the editor’s policy of Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera