Hard lives on Istanbul's streets
Hakan Parsadan makes for an unlikely homeless person.

A good-looking 37-year-old, the former basketball player is one of thousands of people who find themselves surviving on Istanbul’s freezing winter streets.

Like all huge cities, Istanbul has its fair share of homeless people but with the 15-million-strong metropolis recently freezing in a midwinter cold snap, the authorities are trying to house as many as possible.

A private-school graduate Hakan – whose father, Selcuk, was an infamous household name in Turkey – says he has been coming to a sports-center-turned-shelter in Zeytinburnu for the last three or four years.

"Normally, I stay on benches in parks in Ortakoy [a popular, touristic area beside the Bosphorus],” he tells Anadolu Agency.

Hakan’s road to homelessness is not typical. His father made headlines in the 1990s after conning high-ranking officials, using a sham Kemalist organization. Among them was the country’s then prime minister Tansu Ciller who allegedly paid him from a discretionary fund.

His father’s fall from grace saw Hakan eventually quit his 10-year basketball career. He took to working regular jobs until his money ran out. Now he resides at this Istanbul municipality’s sports hall-turned-shelter along with 500 other people.

Meals at this nondescript district’s shelter are served every day; shower facilities and clothes are also provided.

It is the only shelter for the city’s homeless men; women are housed in another unit on the Anatolian side of Istanbul – more than 30 females are hosted at peak times, according to an official at local municipality who did not want to give their name.

Upon entering the sports hall, it is clear to see that almost 400 portable beds are squeezed into a basketball court; a musty smell hangs in the air.

While some of the residents were keen to speak to a reporter – telling heartbreaking and sometimes incoherent stories – others were more reticent.

According to the municipality, the average of a resident age can be anywhere between 18 to 70 years old, although the 35-50 demographic predominates at this shelter.

While homeless people from Syria are hosted in another unit on the Anatolian side due to their large number, there are foreign residents at this shelter from countries including Georgia, Russia, Iraq, Ghana and Afghanistan.

A few self-contained people were simply reading books, staring at the ceiling or hiding under a municipality blanket; others just watched a small TV in a corner.

Hakan, whose long time living rough qualifies him as something of a ‘professional homeless’, says the shelter is not without its problems:

"I have been warning the authorities, saying there are drug addicts here or mentally ill people, but they don’t care.”

The municipally official admits there are issues: "Quarrels are a routine of this hall. Some people have a drinking or drugs problem, some others have a mental disorder.”

He said that the municipality had housed around 2,000 homeless people so far this year and this number was expected to increase up to 3,000, higher than previous seasons.

The shelter is only open for around four months during the winter.

Although he is talking about thousands of people who registered at the shelter, according to the official there are only around 500 regular residents at Istanbul’s emergency units.

His experience suggests homelessness can be a transitory state, with traumatic, acute life events causing people to lose their homes temporarily.

"Some of them are just here to find a job, or have some family problems which take them a couple months to solve and they stay here during this time,” he says.

A lecturer on social services at Ankara-based Hacettepe University, Ugur Ozdemir, agrees:

"Most people we see on streets, such as waste collectors, are not the homeless actually as they are not generally spending nights on the streets but have somewhere to stay,” he tells Anadolu Agency.

According to Ozdemir, types of homelessness in Turkey differ from Western Europe. For example, in the West, long-term homeless people often have an animal for companionship.

"We do not see this in Turkey; one reason for this is the culture,” he says.

Ozdemir points to a transformation that Turkey’s homeless are going through.

This is a change from a time when homeless people were looked after or protected by their neighbors, he says, to a situation now where they are in a fix due to changes in neighborhood culture, as people move out to security-guarded apartment blocks.

In terms of hard data; there is no accurate measurement of Turkey’s homeless population.

One reason for this, says Ozdemir, is that Turkey’s social-services structure is based on an ‘application’ system, meaning you are not officially homeless if you have not applied to the municipality for help.

"These people would not be homeless if they knew their rights,” he says, describing a fatalism to some sleeping rough: "Being homeless is something close to fatigue syndrome; something like waiting until you die.”

Another professor on social work at Hacettepe University, Vedat Isikhan, told Anadolu Agency however that as Turkey’s traditional structure of social support is effective; the overall number of homeless people would not exceed that of a typical European country.
According to Isikhan, some primary causes of homelessness are a lack of affordable housing, domestic violence, job loss, drug addiction or mental illness.

- Everybody has a different story

Back at the Zeytinburnu shelter, the council official says that Istanbul, Ankara, and Bursa are the cities with the highest homeless populations in Turkey.

Contrary to the stereotype of homelessness going hand-in-hand with unemployment, at least 15 people staying here have regular jobs, such as baker or chef, he adds.

Others have fallen on sudden hard times, far from home.

One 48-year-old man, who gives his name as Sencion, says he is from the Dominican Republic.

Claiming that he was robbed in Istanbul and had all his money taken, he is staying at the shelter while waiting for a flight home.

Another man, who only gives the name Mensur, says he is from Iran. A well-dressed man, albeit with poor Turkish and English, he will only say that he came to Istanbul to find a job but ended up at the shelter.

One of the oldest people at the shelter is 81-year-old Yasar, originally from central Turkey.

Sitting in a corner at the shelter, the white-haired man says he has been on the streets since his wife died 15 years ago. He has not seen his two sons for 30 years.

"I do not want to be alone,” says the retired gas station worker, adamant that he does not want to stay at a retirement home.

Like many homeless people Yasar has a turbulent life.

Municipal officers brought him to the shelter after finding him spending nights at a hospital in Kartal, many kilometers away on the other side of the city.

He spends the winter at the shelter then moves between relatives’ houses or sometimes staying on the streets.

When asked what he will do after March when the shelter is closed, he does not say anything but just stares blankly and tearfully.

Last Modified: 2016-01-23 11:21:02
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