When the authorities imposed strict health measures and restrictions to movement in March of last year, homeless people found themselves in a very difficult situation: going to the soup kitchens where they received their only daily meal became an almost impossible feat for them. Then, just a few days after the outbreak was declared, a strong earthquake struck Zagreb, leaving many without a roof over their head. Sanja Blažeković, the spokesperson for the Croatian Homeless Network, told us about how a Facebook post from her NGO prompted hundreds of thousands of her fellow citizens to help the most vulnerable people in society...

What prompted you to start your project or initiative?

With the outbreak of coronavirus in Croatia and the introduction of health measures, the difficulties and problems faced by homeless people and those with no access to temporary accommodation became significantly worse. Due to their living conditions, homeless people were unable to observe either the compulsory measures put in place or those that were recommended (such as maintaining personal hygiene or wearing masks). The suspension of public transport prevented the majority of homeless people from going to the soup kitchens where they would receive their only daily meal. The earthquake that struck Zagreb made the situation even worse, as it damaged homeless shelters. Members of the Croatian Homeless Network in other cities across Croatia also faced a similar situation as a result of the pandemic. Despite frequent appeals, homeless people and people at risk of homelessness received little attention from national and local authorities during this period. The problems faced by homeless people prompted us to organise activities that would make it easier for them to survive the current situation.

How has your project been received? Have you obtained any feedback from the people you helped? (Can you give us an example, if you have any?)

The COVID-19 Homeless Aid initiative began with a post on our Facebook page about homelessness and coronavirus, encouraging people to help the most vulnerable group in society – homeless people. The post prompted a huge response, garnering as many as 150 559 views and leading to donations of gifts and money from businesses and the general public. For homeless people, and in particular those that had no access to temporary housing, our members and other civil society organisations were the only source of support in the new circumstances. In cooperation with the soup kitchen run by Mother Theresa's Missionaries of Charity, we delivered aid packages and a warm meal several times a week. Since the soup kitchens only provide one meal per day, our initiative was warmly received by its users as it meant they had access to food products that would last longer. We also provided an additional service by handing out masks and hand sanitiser.

How will you use this specific funding to provide further help in the community? Are you already planning any new projects?

16 members of the Croatian Homeless Network are legal entities that provide services to homeless people across Croatia, and there are 70 registered volunteers in Zagreb alone. In order to improve the performance and skills of the employees and volunteers working for the Croatian Homeless Network and its member organisations, we plan to channel the funds towards education and the development of new programmes and projects that will contribute to social inclusion and the integration of homeless people and people at risk of homelessness. If the health situation improves, we will organise a study trip to a country that has developed good practices for working with homeless people, so that we can exchange our knowledge and experience. A proportion of the funds will also be used to further assist and support homeless people who do not have access to temporary housing or overnight shelters.

What advice would you give to other organisations in terms of achieving results with such activities and programmes?

Going out into the field and visiting public places and homeless shelters was a new experience for us. We reaffirmed the importance of developing preventative programmes and activities to ensure that people at risk of becoming homeless are not sucked into a vicious circle of homelessness and social isolation. We also became aware of the need to ensure that not only members of the local community but also employees and volunteers of CSOs are in a position to take on an ad hoc management role in the case of an emergency. Raising public awareness via social media about the issues faced by homeless people was one of the biggest factors in the success of the initiative. We encourage anyone who wants to contribute to the development of social services to take a similar approach.