A Slovakian railway gives jobs and magnificent uniforms to the homeless
The homeless at train stations round the globe are often rundown individuals who beg for change or cigarettes, but at the main railway station in Slovakia’s capital Bratislava, the homeless wear smart uniforms with gold buttons.
Instead of asking for money, they offer their help carrying travellers’ luggage for free as porters.
Jozef Simek is one such homeless porter.
“May I help you?” he asks an elderly woman, who is visibly struggling with two heavy bags going up the stairs.
The woman does not pay any attention to him, but Simek cannot complain about a lack of customers: Another traveller immediately asks him for help. He diligently grabs her suitcase and hurries to platform 10 at her side, just in time to catch the 11.55am train to Kosice.
Despite the hectic mass of people at the station, the porters do stand out, thanks to their uniforms. The bright mauve-blue coat with wine-red stripes and gold buttons evokes memories of the Austro-Hungarian empire in which Bratislava, just east of Vienna, was a major city.
Also not to be overlooked are the military-style cap and snappy white gloves.
“It’s mainly older people, but also mothers with prams, who take advantage of our services – hardly any men,” Simek says.
He does not sleep rough, but is relieved that some friends let him live temporarily at their place.
“This work is not for totally broken-down homeless people,” he says.
The basic work requirements are good physical shape and health as well as a relatively groomed appearance and polite manners.
The attentive and helpful porters are paid by a social project, the Nota Bene Porter Plan, which celebrated its first anniversary at the end of 2015.
It was set up by Proti Prudu (Upstream), a Bratislava charity, which for several years has run a magazine sold by the homeless.
The porters work Monday to Friday from 9am to 1pm. In the afternoons they earn more money by selling the magazines.
One thing that most have in common is massive debt, which has built up after divorces or other serious mishaps in life.
“Our Slovak laws don’t just make it difficult for people with no fixed address.
“They add an additional layer of difficulty by not allowing them to file for bankruptcy to get out from under their debt quicker, like in other countries,” project co-ordinator Peter Kadlecik explains.
“Those who opt for a new start with our help receive free debt counselling to get out of the vicious circle of losing their apartment and job and being unable to establish prospects because of it.”
The project began with 10 men. The fact that there are now only six men left on board – one of them being a late newcomer – does not mean the project has been a failure, says Kadlecik.
“Just the opposite. Most of the others left the project because with the start-up help they had the opportunity and found a better job.”
Among the supporters from the very beginning was station-master Pavol Orszagh from the state railway company.
“Since there are no elevators and the walkways are too cramped for the frequent crowds, people with heavy luggage and physical ailments have it difficult to get to the platforms,” Orszagh says.
“The porters therefore perform a valuable service – not only for themselves.”
The founders are also excited about their first international distinction – the Austrian Sozialmarie prize, which is awarded domestically and abroad for exemplary social projects.
Buoyed by this success, the founders are hoping for additional financial sponsors to make it possible to continue the project.