| Vera Cosculluela |
BRATISLAVA (AFP) – Once their crash pad, now their office. Seven homeless men who used to camp out at the Slovak capital’s main train station are now its baggage porters.
Looking dapper in blue uniforms and white gloves, they enter the main hall just after nine for their first shift.
Laco, in his 50s, makes a beeline for a woman with a massive suitcase and offers to carry it to the platform.
“But why?” she asks, surprised. He explains.
The free service, which launched earlier this month, is the brainchild of a Slovak non-governmental organisation, Proti Prudu, whose name means “against the current” in Slovak.
The group covers the cost of porter salaries and uniforms in the hope that the work will help the men recover their dignity and build relationships.
Laco lost his factory job after two months in the hospital.
Unable to find work in Zilina, his hometownin the north, he moved to Bratislava 15 years ago.
So began a life of odd jobs and homeless shelters and a brief stint sleeping rough. Now, after years of chaos, he can afford rent and chip away at his debt.
“They have a potentially hard task ahead of them. They’ll have to win people’s trust,” says Sandra Tordova, head of Proti Prudu.
“Their job will be to talk to passengers, handle the occasional rejection and solve any problems that may arise.”
The service is offered three times a week at off-peak hours for now, while the newbie porters get the hang of hauling bags and talking to passengers.
Later, they hope to expand to rush hour.
Porter Jozef Dorusak, 32, says the occasional passenger will refuse his offer.
“Old ladies in particular. But I understand: these are their personal belongings,” he says.
“They’re afraid their stuff will vanish.”
But most of the response has been positive, he adds.
Dorusak’s name badge reads “Dodo”, his nickname since his early days at the orphanage – home growing up to a third of Slovakia’s street dwellers, according to Tordova.
He faults himself for winding up without a roof.
“I’m not going to blame the system or the state,” he tells AFP.
“I did some dumb things in my day and didn’t know how to manage my money. It’s something I’m learning now.”
Another NGO, Vagus, has also been securing jobs for some of Bratislava’s estimated 5,000 homeless.
The group recently opened the DobreDobre coffee shop, which has the feel of old Pressburg – the capital’s name under the Austro-Hungarian empire – and a staff of three former street dwellers.
“Some of the people who come here for coffee have no idea it’s a special place,” says manager Alexandra Karova.
“But that’s fine, because it’s sort of what we were hoping for,” she tells AFP.
Dressed like a hipster, in bow tie and suspenders, Milan is grateful for the waiter gig.
The 31-year-old former builder was unemployed for over a year and wound up on the street because of family conflict.
“I have a steady job now. I can buy whatever I want- new shoes, food, or even get a sit-down meal somewhere,” he tells AFP.
“It’s a completely different life from the one I had before.”