Zvonko Mlinar: Everyone can help the homeless get through the winter more easily

On the occasion of the now two-year collaboration between Olival and the Croatian Network for the Homeless and the humanitarian campaign to help this extremely vulnerable and marginalized group in our society, we spoke with Mr. Zvonko Mlinar, the executive president of HMB. He shared with us his many years of experience working with the homeless firsthand, the daily challenges they face, but also the ways in which each of us can help them.

We kindly ask you to briefly introduce yourself. How long have you been employed in the social welfare system? How did it come about that you have been working and helping the homeless for 12 years?

I have been in the social welfare system for 42 years (Institute for Social Protection City of Zagreb, Republic Social Welfare Fund Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, City Society of the Red Cross Zagreb and finally the Croatian Network for the Homeless). I have encountered homelessness since the beginning of my work at the Institute for Social Protection in the City of Zagreb. At that time, I volunteered at the Zagreb Red Cross, which had an overnight accommodation in the immediate vicinity of the Central Station. 16 years ago, I moved from the ministry in charge of social welfare to the Red Cross Zagreb, and since then I have been working directly with the homeless. For several years, as part of my work at the Red Cross, as an assistant director for social welfare, I also managed the Shelter for the homeless in Velika Kosnica, among other things.

I am currently employed in the Croatian Network for the Homeless (HMB) as the project manager "New Perspective for the Homeless". I perform the function of executive president of HMB on a voluntary basis.

The public is full of prejudices about the homeless and very often it is considered that they are idlers and drug addicts? Is that correct? How do people end up on the road? Are there young people among the homeless?

Many build their impression of the homeless on the basis of stereotypes. The most common are: they are addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling; they are lazy to work; they are to blame; they are thieves, etc. It is true, among the homeless, as in the rest of the population, there are also drug addicts and ex-offenders. For some it has led to homelessness, but for many it is a consequence of homelessness. Due to living conditions, homeless people are sometimes forced to beg and wander, for which they are duly punished. Idle workers are certainly not. We all have certain physiological and psychological needs and we do not believe and have not yet encountered such a case, that someone out of laziness ignored it and chose to sleep in public places and in abandoned buildings, food in soup kitchens, used clothes and shoes, inability to maintain hygiene, social isolation, etc. If it were good, I believe that most people would opt for such a life.

Negative attitudes towards the homeless are most often due to ignorance and insufficient information about the causes that lead to entering the world of homelessness and social isolation. Unfortunately, prejudices are often the basis for discriminatory and unfair treatment of the homeless, even by institutions and persons who should provide them with help and support.

Anyone can end up on the street, due to family breakup, loss of job, foreclosure, impaired health, exit from alternative care, low pensions and social benefits, inadequate parental care, stigma and prejudice, disability, intellectual disabilities, evictions, inability to pay rent, domestic violence , unsafe tenancies and of course also due to addiction and the commission of criminal offences. There are many reasons for the transition from normal living conditions to homelessness, and one of the most common is that the person was not provided with adequate help and support at the time when he needed it the most.

People who do not have a family and whose family has broken up, single people, most often end up homeless. Over 98% of the homeless are single, of which 50% have never started a family, while the rest have had their families broken up.

Unfortunately, among the homeless there are many young people or those who ended up in homelessness when they were young. Most often, these are people who grew up in alternative care (children's and educational homes, foster families) and young people who left the family when they reached adulthood due to disturbed relationships. Although they are a priority for us and other homeless service providers, including social welfare centers, the possibilities for more appropriate care for them are limited. With the amounts of social benefits, they cannot meet basic life needs (rent, food, clothing, etc.), so they are forced to stay in public places and in abandoned buildings, which leads many to the most extreme form of social isolation, homelessness. It is understandable that young people who come out of alternative care are not inclined to go to a shelter or overnight accommodation after the institution, and there are no other options for more appropriate accommodation apart from accommodation in one of the three housing communities in the Republic of Croatia.

What about when people call you back? What are the first steps you take?

We are mostly visited by people about whom we have no knowledge, so the most important thing in the first contact is to find out about the person's problems and difficulties, to determine how we can help him at that moment to solve what is most important. If we cannot resolve the issue, we contact or refer the person to other homeless service providers. Because of the above, we networked in the HMB and established good cooperation with centers for social welfare, soup kitchens, humanitarian organizations and other stakeholders who can contribute to solving the difficulties and problems of the person who approached us.

Everyone who comes to us has specific problems and difficulties, but we try to help everyone. Someone needs information and help in exercising rights from the social welfare system; someone advice; someone help with accommodation or renting a room; someone help with registering residence and obtaining an identity card; someone help to achieve health care; some have a job, some just a conversation, a coffee, staying in the HMB area and using a computer, etc.

For the majority of homeless people, the primary problem is accommodation, food, maintaining hygiene, purchasing clothes and shoes, registering residence and obtaining an identity card. Only after that can one begin to obtain social benefits, with help in employment, improvement of social skills, psychosocial assistance, etc. There are no rules for handling, each case is specific. Among our users are elderly and sick people, young people who grew up in alternative care, young people who ended up on the street due to disturbed family relationships, people with intellectual disabilities, chronically ill people, veterans, etc., people from all socially vulnerable and poor groups.

Housing is the biggest problem for the homeless. According to the HMB's assessment, there are over 2,000 absolute homeless people in the Republic of Croatia, and only about 420 places in shelters and shelters. In Zagreb, there are over 700 people who live in public places and in abandoned buildings, and there are 150 places in two shelters that have been filled. In the summer, as our users say, it is not a problem, but in the winter it is a trauma.

Younger people mostly sleep in carriages and areas around the Central Station. Currently there are between 70 and 100 of them.

Due to sleeping in public places and in abandoned buildings before winter, they are most often looking for sleeping bags and blankets, which we will provide them this winter thanks to Olival.

Almost all of Zagreb's homeless eat lunch in soup kitchens, but it is their only daily meal, so in our Center for Help and Support for the Homeless and People at Risk of Homelessness, we give them canned food products that we receive from donors or buy from donated funds. Thanks to one donation, for the next 2.5 months all users who come to the Center will receive breakfast. From time to time, HMB employees and volunteers go to places where the homeless live and we distribute food products and hygiene items, and in winter sleeping bags, blankets, backpacks, etc.

Maintaining personal hygiene, especially in winter, is one of the biggest problems of the homeless, so thanks to Olival's last year's campaign and other donors, we give them vouchers for showering in the public swimming pool of the City of Zagreb .

What is your favorite experience that you remember from these past 12 years?

It is difficult to single out the most favorite experience, there were countless beautiful moments, with homeless people on the street, users of the Red Cross Shelter and the Center for Help and Support for the Homeless, young people from housing communities for the homeless, members of the Croatian Homeless Football Team, volunteers, donors, co-workers at HMB- in... However, I would single out young homeless people who grew up in alternative care and ended up on the street. We accommodated them in two housing associations founded by HMB and Red Cross Zagreb .

Here are some examples.

1. (age 18) – grew up in children's homes. At the age of 18, he left home at his own request. We found him intoxicated on the street and placed him in a residential community. He finished the 4th grade of high school in a residential community, got a job and lives with his girlfriend today. Now he is already 24 years old. We recently had coffee. A wonderful boy who will start further education next year.

2. (age 26) – grew up in alternative care. He occasionally worked as a waiter and during that period became addicted to alcohol. He ended up on the street and, after three months, in a shelter. It was one of the most difficult cases. It helped that he loved football more than alcohol. We included him in the activities of the Croatian homeless football team. To go to the Homeless World Cup in Poland, the condition was to stop drinking alcohol. He stopped drinking and after Poland got a job in a store. Today he has a wonderful family with three children.

I especially like Anta's story, and these are his words:

"I woke up in the tram. I spent my days nowhere. In the stations, on the street. Every day was the same for me. I was without an apartment, without anything, without a house, without hygiene supplies, parents, friends. I was alone until I came here . I woke up in the tram at 4 in the morning. For eight months I spent my nights in the tram like that. I was freezing, I ate in soup kitchens in Zagreb, I had no hygiene whatsoever. For eight months it was not working at all, I could not move. During the day I took shelter by myself where it was warm, in stations, Cinestar, on buses. I threw away all my personal belongings - I couldn't take them with me... While the summer lasted it was good, but with the winter it gets worse. You have nowhere to wash , take a bath. People look at you like a bum, think you stink, spit on you, bark at you, as if you were the worst. I felt that they were moving away from me, that they were avoiding me... I contacted the social care center, but when you don't have a place of residence in Zagreb, then everyone isolates themselves, then you're left to fend for yourself. They tell me "you're not from here, you can't we will help you. But again I kept a clear head. Here, everything is bureaucratized."

We met recently. Ante remained clear-headed and today works as a security guard and has a rented apartment. He came to our Center for help and support for the homeless and expressed his desire to volunteer.

How can we help more? How can we get involved and specifically help?

Thanks to the team from Olival. I think you are not aware of how much you helped people who are on the street with last year's donation. You have made it possible for many people to be able to maintain hygiene, so that they do not experience what Ante experienced due to not bathing.

Your action this year will help many people to warm up in cold abandoned buildings in a sleeping bag, to take their personal belongings in their backpack, to have some canned goods for breakfast and dinner, to get through this winter more easily.

Except through Olival's webshop, by purchasing products from 1.11. until November 30, each of you can get involved by donating durable food products, hygiene items (shaving foam and razors, wet wipes, pads for women, shower gels, soaps, etc.), fruit, winter jackets, underwear, hats , scarves, flashlights, etc. or by payment to IBAN: HR 6823600001102347110 More information is available on our website .