What had seemed a reasonable choice of clothing just a few hours ago had quickly turned into regret as I squeezed myself through a tiny hole in a wire fence – trying not to shred my long, wavy summer skirt on the surrounding, serrated edges; or cutting my skin for that matter.
Once everybody had made it through – slightly proud of our acrobatic acumen – we were hurried on by M, his eyes anxiously scanning the windows of adjacent buildings, the right index finger over his mouth shushing our excited little group as we made our way through overgrown pathways that once were the paved welcome to a large block of flats towering over Rijeka in Croatia.
M had agreed to take us to the place he called home. Nobody knows his real name or the exact country he comes from. He had learned to be cautious over the past decades; his experiences during the Soviet Union, the wars, a steady companion. He had a deep-rooted suspicion of authorities – rather living on the streets than giving away the well guarded secret of who he was.
As we walked, M and I had settled on German as our language of choice. I tried to piece together what I could of his past and present but with little success – he chose carefully what he would tell me, painting a picture of a man who, if not happy, was content with his life. Trying to improve where he could, but realistic about the prospects a homeless man (who liked to drink more than would do him good) would have on a job market that lacked jobs. He told me about his daily routine, coming to a Vincentian daycentre for food, going into the city centre to beg tourists for money and get alcohol. Returning to his home after dark to do it all again the next day.
And that’s where we were now. His home. We stood at the entrance; large shattered double doors; yellow police tape signalling the world to stay out; my flip-flops doing as good a job as they could in protecting me from the glass that lay scattered across the floor. As M skilfully manoeuvred our steps around broken furniture with rusty nails sticking out, fried cables and piles of dirt; I tried to imagine how this building once must have looked like. A bright, window-panelled lobby, maybe a couple of sofas, a few plants here and there, a buzzling little community in the middle of the city.
If it ever were like that, it no longer bore any resemblance to its former, welcoming self. We had arrived at the stairwell. Or more accurate: the pitch-black centre with structures resembling steps, leading us up one level at a time. M was trying his best to navigate us, he knew his path by heart, but the rest of us – despite the use of our phones as torches – inched forward at snail like pace, trying to resist the urge to grab hold of the railing which would likely break away at the slightest of touches.
M told us that one resident had put the stairs on fire once, but luckily nobody had been hurt. We could see the burn marks on the walls, and the black ashes under our feet; feeling its softness as we walked on. Leading up to the second floor, we had to balance on some planks to safely move forward, always trying to use the same way M had shown us. It was the middle of the day, hot, sunshiny; but for all we knew it could have been the middle of the night. No natural light penetrated this place and I couldn’t help but wonder how M could find his way through this maze of hazardous obstacles when he would come back in the dark, drunk.
When we finally made it to the third floor, we were welcomed by a pile of trash, bearing sad testimony to people living here. We stumbled across a broken door that somewhat acted as a bridge to a long hallway. M was walking faster now. He stopped at the third door on the left, gesturing us inside with a shy smile.
What we saw was a tiny room, an open window on the opposite side of the entrance. Two old mattresses lying on the floor; the thin, scruffy beddings neatly placed on top. M was sharing with a friend. They had a little bedside table stacked with their meagre belongings – nothing of worth to us, but valuables for them. It was dirty; smelly; shabby. It was all he had. He had brought us to his sanctuary. And I could feel nothing but gratitude for him to trust us enough to open up this part of his life, to make himself – a man who guarded everything he was – so vulnerable.
He wanted us to know what it was like. He wanted us to see the decrepit, ruinous structures that so many were forced to call their home because there simply was no alternative. He wanted us to know how he hid anything of value in a pile of trash because nobody would look for it there. He wanted us to know about the young man they had found dead one floor up. And the man nobody ever saw, but who they were sure lived on the top floor. He extended his hand to lead us through his world, his reality. We took it.
As we staggered back downstairs I couldn’t quite decide on how I felt. These last two hours had left an impression; they had opened a door to a life – a life that, despite the utter harshness of its circumstances, took pride in calling a little, run-down room on the third floor of a derelict building, home.
And then there was this hope that one day M, a man in his mid-50s, maybe – just maybe – could live in a bright little house that would welcome him into its safety; that would bring him a bed with warm, clean beddings; a cupboard for his treasures; a small kitchen and bathroom. And his own front door. A door without yellow police tape; without shattered glass. A door he could open to welcome the world in.
‘For the love of God, my dear Sister, practice great gentleness toward the poor and toward everyone. Try to satisfy as much by words as by actions. That will be very easy for you if you maintain great esteem for your neighbor: the rich because they are above you, the poor because they are your masters.’
St Louise de Marillac
Diaries of a Vincentian takes a closer look at some of the more personal experiences of Vincentians working with homeless people, slum dwellers and refugees. They shine a light on the moments that inspired us, the situations that left us speechless and shocked, and the people that crossed our paths and showed us that more must be done.
What connects them is that Vincentian commitment to the poorest of the poor; and the hope that as a Family, we can do more.
Anja Bohnsack, Research and Development Manager