Drumodom – ADRA Serbias work with the Homeless

ADRA Serbia has been doing remarkable work serving refugees, the displaced, and the homeless throughout the country. Since the 1990s, Serbia has been experiencing waves of displaced people arriving in their country, many of whom are becoming homeless. While the government and many services overlook these people, ADRA Serbia ensures that they are not forgotten and left unseen. They have been identifying communities that need support, ensuring that they are documented and their needs are being understood, and then working to see that these needs are met. Their work does not stop at service provision, but includes a commitment to advocacy and change. They are engaging lawmakers to fix the systems and structures and address these communities’ vulnerabilities. This work has been transformative. It is changing lives, giving communities hope, and allowing them to believe that further change is possible.

The impacts of displacement loom large in Serbia’s populous. In a country of 7.8 million, The International Organization of Migration estimates that there are likely 307,000 people that are either refugees or internally displaced people. Displaced people are also overrepresented in Serbia’s homeless population, as they make up about 12,500 people, or approximately 25% of the total homeless population (50,000). Displaced people have arrived in three waves in Serbia. The first wave includes those escaping the civil wars of the 1990s between the republics of the former Yugoslavia. The second wave includes those moving from Africa and the Middle East since 2014. Most are transiting through Serbia to Western Europe – though many are staying. The final wave is comprised of those displaced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. ADRA Serbia serves these groups through three separate programs. One focuses on the Roma community and one on homeless individuals with refugee backgrounds, migrants, refugees, and displaced persons from the Middle East and Ukraine. The third program is currently on hold. In the Roma program, ADRA Serbia supports children and young families living in substandard settlements in the Belgrade region. The Roma in Serbia are an ethnic minority group with a distinct cultural and historical background. They are one of the largest minority communities in the country, estimated to number between 200,000 and 450,000 people. The Roma have a long history in the Balkans. While some families’ presence in Serbia can be traced back centuries, many others have arrived after being displaced from former Yugoslav states. Around three-quarters have fled from Kosovo. The Roma represent approximately 50% of all refugees and internally displaced people in Serbia that require support.

The Roma population faces multiple disadvantages, such as poor living conditions, lack of essential utilities, limited education, and discrimination. ADRA provides educational and economic support to address these challenges, including tutoring children, job market preparation for youth, and assisting adults in completing formal education, vocational training, starting businesses, and finding better job opportunities. The second program ADRA Serbia runs is called Comprehensive Support to Homeless, which aims to address homelessness in Serbia. Homelessness in the country emerged due to the armed conflicts in the 1990s and the subsequent economic challenges during the transition to democracy. ADRA Serbia’s focus in this project goes beyond providing direct services to homeless individuals, including advocacy work with lawmakers and policymakers. They aim to bring about systemic change and address the underlying issues that perpetuate the challenges faced by these vulnerable groups. Their direct service work is centered in Belgrade, where they work to discover and engage with homeless individuals. Many are overlooked or missed by authorities as they choose to live in abandoned buildings or basements; their distrust of authorities means that they actively avoid engagement with them. ADRA Serbia seeks to build relationships; it offers mobile services, identifies their needs, and provides short- and long-term assistance to help improve their situations. The connection this program has helped form with the homeless population and the trust they have built up is remarkable. ADRA’s work in this area is well recognized by the public, the media, and the government, and its multidisciplinary approach to homelessness is considered unique in the region. It’s why, when ADRA Serbia advocates, the government is keen to listen – even inviting them to help shape policy.

ADRA Serbia is using its influence to work with the government to establish a Network for Combating Homelessness, involving civil society organizations, academia, media, and local and national governments. They also recognize a lack of reliable statistics and effective strategic approaches to homelessness on the systemic level, and existing strategies often remain unimplemented. ADRA emphasizes the need for government commitment and quality monitoring. In October 2022, the Ministry for Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue invited ADRA to join a multisectoral body to address homelessness. This initiative includes discussions on personal documents, access to health and social services, the definition of homelessness, and homelessness and housing strategy. ADRA entered the process based on their substantial experience working with communities and providing multidisciplinary support. The process began on International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2022. After six months, progress has been made, although there are obstacles, including the fact that the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy is still not fully participating. However, at the city level, a new shelter has been opened in Belgrade because of these discussions; a more strategic focus to address homelessness is finally being thought about in some areas of government. ADRA is committed to holding the government accountable and ensuring the current initiative delivers actual results. ADRA intends to highlight what has been done and where progress could be made on the project’s first anniversary by producing a report and engaging the media. They will highlight the excellent work and recognize where progress could be faster.

Currently, ADRA Serbia has three goals: 1. Ensure financial stability for their service provision programs; 2. Establish a national network that will map those already working with homelessness across the country to both strengthen their capabilities and improve civil society’s collective advocacy; and 3. Leverage this shared knowledge and experience to improve policy continually. ADRA Serbia’s work demonstrates how transformative Adventists can be when we seek to serve the vulnerable and advocate to our leaders to do the same – we lift up the lost, the forgotten, and the unheard, and we shift our communities and our regions to be a little more how God intends them to be, places where all can flourish.