By Lajla Veselica
Alcoholics, vagrants, nobodies—Mile Mrvalj rattles off common prejudices against Zagreb's "invisible" homeless community as he leads a tour around sites that usually go unnoticed in the Croatian capital.
“Now you will hear the story of a painful, tough Zagreb,’’ the 58-year-old, who spent more than three years on the streets himself, tells local high school students at the start of a recent tour.
During the next hour and a half he takes the group to seemingly ordinary spots in downtown Zagreb that are a lifeline for those without shelter, especially during cold winters.
Croatia has a homeless population of around 2,000 and it is increasing, according to NGO estimates, which had put the figure at around half that just two years ago.
Another 10,000 are currently classified as being “relative”—as opposed to “absolute”—homeless, meaning they have shelter but lack basic health and security standards.
Mrvalj, who co-founded the tour, starts his route at the King Tomislav Square park, a neatly-trimmed lawn packed with tourists, young couples and children.
No homeless person would dare rest in the park in full view, says Mrvalj, explaining that they often sleep in abandoned buildings nearby.
"If a homeless person was sleeping on this grass police would fine him," he adds.
Trams and coffee
"How did you become homeless?" a teenage boy asks Mrvalj on the tour.
The former gallery owner recounts his own downward spiral—triggered by a mortgage loan he could not pay off that eventually left him bankrupt in 2009.
Gradually abandoned by family and friends, he left his home in Bosnia's capital Sarajevo for Zagreb.
For more than three years he lived without a roof over his head.
Lighting one cigarette after another, Mrvalj describes the shame he felt when collecting refundable plastic bottles from rubbish bins to earn around three euros ($3.4) a day.
The experience was “hell,” he recalls. "I was smelling so badly. I heard so many times ‘Go away stinky! Have a bath!'.”
In Croatia, due to economic hardship and high unemployment—8.4 percent in September—making ends meet is a tall order for many, not only the homeless.
The tour's second stop—Zagreb's main railway station—is a place where many homeless go to warm up in the winter, though only for 30 minutes due to video surveillance and fear of police, says Mrvalj.
The next option is to ride the trams.
“If it's really cold you make two, three tram tours," he explains.
A cheap coffee machine inside the station provides another source of solace.
“Coffee saves you, warms you up, after waking up frozen like an iceberg,” Mrvalj tells the tour group.
‘Can happen to anyone’
After obtaining a Croatian ID card four years ago, Mrvalj managed to secure health care and a room to live in.
Now he runs an association to help the homeless—named Fajter (Fighter)—and since July guides the "Invisible Zagreb" tour five times a week as its sole guide.
Mrvalj says the goal of the tour is to raise awareness about growing homelessness and to correct misunderstandings.
"A common [prejudice] is that homeless people are to be blamed for their destiny," he told AFP.
But he said that homelessness "can happen to anyone" faced with an unlucky chain of events, such as the loss of a job leading to an inability to pay off a loan.
"If someone told me 10 years ago that I would be homeless I would tell him that he was crazy."
Croatia's economic problems have their roots in the 1990s independence war and its legacy, especially the fraudulent privatisations of state-run firms which threw many out of work and left companies ruined.
Last year nearly 28 percent of the country's 4.2 million people were at risk of poverty or social exclusion, according to Eurostat figures released in October.
Only six other EU member states -- Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Italy, Latvia and Lithuania -- had a higher number at risk.
Jointly launched with an agency specialised in social impact programmes, the Zagreb tour was initially planned for tourists, but now locals dominate.
"People are realising how many things they don't notice on an everyday basis," said Branimir Radakovic, of the Brodoto agency.
Petra Stunja, a 16-year-old pupil on the tour, said she learned that homelessness "can happen to many without expecting it."
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