openDemocracyUK

Invisible in plain sight: fighting loneliness in the homeless community

Have a chat with someone on the streets and you may help and, perhaps, come away with an important story. This is Rupi’s.

James Walker
31 July 2019
Rupi Gabor at the Café St Pierre.
Rupi Gabor at the Café St Pierre.
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James Walker

Sat on the edge of the street, people by the hundreds walk by without acknowledgement, even eye contact. Whilst much attention is given to loneliness in the elderly (as witnessed in much of the recent outcry over the BBC’s scrapping of free licence fees for over-75’s), why is there not more attention given to the issue of loneliness in the homeless community?

77% of homeless people often or sometimes feel lonely, according to a survey undertaken by Crisis in 2015. That’s more than three times the level of loneliness amongst the middle-aged and older.

The effect of this loneliness may be small at first but can turn into social isolation which, in turn, can lead towards social exclusion. Excluded from mainstream social networks, it becomes harder and harder to get housing and find gainful employment.

One solution is simple – treat the homeless as we would like to be treated, as human beings with value. Eye contact, a smile, a handshake – take the time to talk to someone who is homeless, and you may be surprised by the stories they have to tell and what you may learn. I was.

From a Soviet-era prison to the streets of Britain

I first met Rupi whilst surveying the homeless at Catching Lives, a homeless daycentre and service provider in Canterbury, Kent. Pacing awkwardly, survey and clipboard in hand, I spot a man in a leather jacket at one of the tables lining the main communal room. I approach and start my usual pitch: I’m a student doing some research into voting in the homeless community. I ask for three minutes of his time.

The man looks up, smiles and asks for the question to be repeated. Sensing the Francophone accent, we start talking excitedly in French where I learn that he grew up in Romania but ended up in Belgium as a political refugee before coming to the UK. Eager to find out more, we exchange numbers and names. His - Rupi Gabor.

Three weeks later, we meet in the picturesque garden of Café St. Pierre on Canterbury High Street. Armed with a coffee each, Rupi begins: “I was born in a city that has no link to my name or my origins. My given name has Indian origins whereas my family name is Hungarian, Transylvanian, and I was born near the Black sea, in Constanta. At least that’s what my documents say. When it comes to my origins, my family, that is a mystery I am yet to resolve. I hope to one day. I grew up in an orphanage on the other side of Romania, in a place close to Timisoara called Gavojdia.”

Growing up in the 1970s and 80s in communist Romania, however, was particularly difficult for Rupi. “There was a lot of discrimination with the name I have and the way I look, being of Hungarian, perhaps Romani traveller origins. I’m not entirely sure. In any case, I was a foreigner and, in those days, with Ceaușescu (communist leader and dictator of Romania from 1965 to 1989) that was like being a martian. People looked at me weirdly and treated me differently. This discrimination, as well as my time under this dictatorship, still affects me today.”

“I have a lot to say, a lot to get out because, you see, I’m all alone, not a big social life.”

Leaving school in February 1989, Rupi found himself, as many do at that age, wondering what next. “I’d meet my friends in the park and we would talk politics, how there is nothing to do in Gavojdia, no opportunities. But at the time, if the police saw a group of men meeting together in public, they could put you in prison. The police would grab you, give you a smack in the head with a truncheon; democratisers they called them.”

Rupi managed to eventually find a job in a factory but the work was hard and poorly paid. He ended up on the streets and, in an effort to improve his life, fled with two friends across the border. “But we were caught and brought to a room in the border office. The border police gave me an old phone and told me to put the handset to my ear and say, ‘I’m sorry for betraying my country.’ This was a long sentence because, at the same time, they would send electric shocks. I had to say it several times and I have come to accept now that this was torture.” What followed, however, was worse. Rupi was sent to prison for one year.

It was a tough time for Rupi, both mentally and physically. For one, political prisoners (like Rupi) were separated and afforded worse conditions than their criminal counterparts; “they were allowed outside in the yard. Us, no. Also, we had to remain silent at all times, couldn’t speak to one another. If we did, we were punished, beaten. This experience of not being able to speak without punishment affected me quite a lot. For some time afterwards, I couldn’t speak or respond to people. It’s a very bizarre experience.”

Day-to-day life was tough; “I got in trouble, beaten around 3 times a day. They would let me out of my cell to clean the corridors; ‘quicker, quicker, quicker’, they would say. I did have one familiar face though, a friend from the orphanage. He was bigger than me and had done military service where he was a chef. So, when he was put in prison, he was assigned to the kitchens. He was all good, he had food,” Rupi recalls. “I remember that he came to see me once or twice and gave me a block of polenta.”

Rupi only spent a couple of months in prison in the end as the revolution of 1989 swept across Eastern Europe. Before anyone could be liberated, though, the 500 or so political prisoners alongside Rupi were, he explains, “put into groups of 50. I was in group 3 and we were marched towards the prison doors. Group 1 went out and were shot by firing squad.” Why? Because they were so-called ‘enemies of communism’ or ‘revolutionaries’ with links to those who were busy sparking a revolution.

In the end, Rupi escaped with his life as the military police stormed the prison just in time. Rupi asserts that “if it wasn’t for this (the revolution), I would have died. It was then that I started believing in God.”

Rupi returned home to Gavojdia, but found that there was no work for a former prisoner. Instead, he tried, this time successfully, to cross the border towards the West in the search of a better life. Rupi recalls that it took him and two friends over two months to make it to Germany. 28 years later and he is now in the UK and hopes to get his lorry driving licence.

At the start of the interview, Rupi explained, “I have a lot to say, a lot to get out because, you see, I’m all alone, not a big social life.” Later on he talked about where we had first met, Catching Lives and how he goes there to meet people, to have a chat. But not every homeless person will have the same access to services like this, amidst rising homelessness and dwindling funds for service providers.

There is something we can do though. Why not have a chat, exchange a friendly nod or a handshake with a homeless person the next time you are walking to work. You might talk to Rupi, someone else with a story to tell, dramatic or otherwise. But you will be talking to a human being, one who may feel lonely or rejected from society. The homeless are often written off as the drunk, drugged and mentally ill but in truth there’s a rich tapestry of human experience that deserves to be looked in the eye, talked and listened to. Why not start now?

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