A group of people waits patiently by a blue bus parked beneath a bridge in Belgrade on a sunny autumn day. This will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to take a shower, wash their clothes, and get a medical checkup.
Three times a week, a humanitarian organization in Serbia opens its mobile bus center for the homeless, providing basic services and assistance to some of the thousands of people who live and sleep rough in the Balkan country’s capital city.
The Adventist Development and Relief Agency’s project has evolved gradually over the last four years. However, its significance has grown since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which has pushed already vulnerable communities even further to the margins.
According to Igor Mitrovic, executive director of the ADRA group, which is behind the project, there are 7,000 homeless people in Belgrade alone.
Homeless people in Belgrade are frequently afflicted by chronic diseases, mental health issues, or substance abuse and, in the majority of cases, lack documentation and live under the radar of the state. According to Mitrovic, ADRA’s goal is to find as many as possible, provide immediate assistance, and work to reintegrate them into the system in the long run. “Almost all of them have been abandoned by society,” he said. “They ended up without IDs, with no connection to the health-care or social-welfare systems.”
While the sight of homeless people sleeping in parks and streets is common in most world capitals, it emerged relatively recently in Serbia, following the violent disintegration of the former communist-run Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the postwar transition.
According to Mitrovic, the majority of Belgrade’s homeless are people in their 50s and older who have become lost in the chaos of the economic destruction caused by the Yugoslav wars and the collapse of the socialist-era welfare state.
“We have around 1,000 people (whom) we are trying to relatively regularly assist on a daily basis, and maybe 2,000 whom we, at least once a year, assist in some way to reduce the negative consequences of living in the street,” said Mitrovic.
Belgrade, a city of 2 million people, has a city-run shelter, but its 100 spots are usually fully booked well in advance and are insufficient. Authorities have promised to open another shelter and have set up temporary facilities throughout the city.
ADRA in Serbia, which is part of the international ADRA network, worked on the bus project with the Belgrade city authorities as well as the US and Slovak governments via the USAID and SlovakAid agencies, according to Mitrovic. The “Drumodom” bus, which roughly translates as “Roadhome,” is envisioned as a temporary stop for homeless people on their “way back home.”
Already without income, vulnerable groups such as the homeless have found their options even more limited as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has widened existing social gaps, according to Mitrovic. This has exacerbated their isolation, particularly during last year’s near-total lockdown.
“Even those minor opportunities on the outskirts of social life, such as collecting something or using any kind of secondary waste to be resold, have been drastically reduced,” Mitrovic said. Slavko Antonic, 64, a former Bosnian pilot, told reporters that pandemic restrictions have prevented him from returning to the northwest town of Prijedor, where he has a small disability income after being injured during the 1990s war.
Antonic, who displayed what he claimed was a copy of his Bosnian ID, stated that he now has no money or means of transportation and lives in an abandoned camping trailer with no electricity or running water. Antonic explained that a nearby restaurant saves leftovers and that he can keep clean thanks to ADRA’s bus.