Children of the Bucharest Sewer System

March 14, 2013

We visited a street outreach program of  ARAS, an NGO fighting HIV among the most vulnerable people of Romania

“I like huffing glue, I got nothing else” says the young guy with blurred eyes, sniffing from a plastic bag. “I’ve been living on these streets for seven years, and I have to fight for life every day.” We are near the Northern Railway Station in Bucharest, around 11 pm. We arrived here on the street outreach bus of ARAS a Romanian civil organization, to shoot a documentary on drug addict and sex worker street urchins. Thousands of them live in the city. Many of them burrow in the sewer system where they aren't bothered by the police, and the temperature is bearable, even in winter. As our minivan, which used to be an ambulance, comes to a stop near the railway station, more and more figures emerge from the darkness – some literally crawl out of holes in the ground. Since the police keep on covering over the sewer openings with concrete, the homeless dig new holes in the ground through which they can reach the depths of the canals, even though they have to crawl to worm themselves inside. I don’t even dare to imagine what life down there could be like.

ARAS is one of the few organizations which try to help these pariahs ostracized by society. Many of their teenage clients are in such a worn-down state they look like old men. They have been cast off by their families, or they might have run away from alcoholic or abusive parents. When they can afford it, they shoot themselves up with various designer drugs with dubious content, and then they stay high for days without sleep. When they can't afford it, they just sniff glue from a plastic bag. Designer drugs – cheap legal substitutes for illegal drugs – flooded the Romanian market in 2009, exported from China and India. These uppers cause euphoria and wakefulness, but users who overdose may experience panic attacks and paranoia. As opposed to heroin, which users shoot up 3 or 4 times a day, these stimulants can be used as many as 15 times a day, which means that sharing syringes and needles is much more common. As a consequence of the economic crisis, financial support for needle exchange programs has lessened, and users have received far fewer sterile hypodermic syringes. While only a few HIV infections were registered among drug users before 2009, this number has increased to thousands in recent years! An epidemic has started, AIDS ante portas. And since most street urchins also trade sex, this epidemic will not be limited to drug users.

“They are all going to beg money or cigarettes from you, but don’t give them anything” Dan, the social worker leading the street outreach team, explains the rules. “If you give something to one, the others will also ask something, and if you don’t give anything to them, they will feel that you favour their buddy.” The clients gather around the ambulance and look askance at our camera – until Dan explains that we won’t record anyone against their wish. Most of them are between 15 and 30, though it's hard to guess after a few years spent on the street. I thought that the guy with the plastic bag was around 30, but he was only seventeen. The social workers talk to them and write down their data. Many come only for syringes, but the girls ask for condoms as well. A guy shows his hand: It is swollen to twice its normal size. He must have missed the vein with his needle.

“Don’t you feel bad when you have to give syringes to teens?” I ask Dan. “Of course I feel bad. But do you think that if I don’t give them syringes they won’t shoot up?” he counters. “They will, but they might use blunt used needles which infect them, and then they infect others.” I look at the kids, and sure enough, these kids don’t look like they could be dissuaded. Their gestures reveal an impatient, anxious hunger.

“They can take up to 50 needles and a dozen condoms a week” says Dan. “The reason for the limit, is that we haven’t got enough money, otherwise a hardcore designer drug user normally uses more needles, and a sex worker more condoms.” Three clients apply for an HIV test that day - a voluntary, anonymous procedure. The team spends more time with them, because they provide advice along with the result, whether it's negative or positive, so they go inside the van with closed doors for fifteen minutes. The most popular method is a saliva test which provides relatively high reliability in HIV diagnosis. Later, I learned that two out of those three tests proved  positive. ARAS estimates that half of their clients have HIV. If they fail to visit the clinic, to receive medication in time, or to take it regularly, their days are numbered: sooner or later, their immune system will shut down and they'll die in a slow and painful agony. Moreover, Romania has the highest number of tuberculosis cases in Europe, and the coinfection of TB and HIV creates an often untreatable and deadly cocktail.

Soon we continue our midnight round trip of street aid to the next stop. “This area is quite dangerous, so don't leave the car, and don’t unpack your camera” explains Adrian, one of the social workers. “The pimps don’t like the girls being filmed.” We take heed of his advice. As soon as the ambulance stops, the girls surround it. Most of them are Romany, between 18 and 25, wearing light garments and apparently stoned: otherwise, they couldn't stand the cold so easily. They show their identification, and try to pick up as many condoms as possible. But after just a few minutes, one of them cries out: “Garda, garda!” (police), and the girls disappear into gateways at miraculous speed, like gazelles scenting a lion; except that gazelles don’t wear high heels. By the time the police car draws up next to us, the whole street is empty.

“Tell me, how the hell are we supposed to perform proper HIV prevention like this?” asks a social worker bitterly. And it really seems as if the police are working for a different state, hindering the work of the social workers on purpose. “There are three kinds of police: the town police, the district police and the gendarmerie, and all three take bribes from the girls separately.” And the police aren't the only problem. The ARAS street aid bus is financed by the EU's structural fund, but the project comes to an end this June. If they can't find financial sources before then, even this bus will terminate - the only contact with society for thousands of outcasts living out on the street. ARAS has received only promises from the government, not money. By the time I say goodbye to them, at dawn, I'm thinking that the real heroes of our era aren't the bored millionaires in American movies, who are chasing bad guys at night in strange masks.

written by Sárosi Péter 

translated by iGury

photos by Takács István Gábor