Homeless luggage porters of Bratislava lift themselves out of debt

Formerly homeless Nota Bene vendor Jozef carries people's bags in Bratislava's main train station. Photo: Jana ČavojskáOn a busy morning several days before Christmas, a man passing through Bratislava’s main train station pauses at the foot of a steep staircase, a heavy suitcase laden with presents by his side. He steels himself for a difficult climb.

Despite its charms, Bratislava’s main railway station is in desperate need of modernisation. An absence of lifts or escalators has long posed a problem for travellers, who must negotiate this steep set of stairs as they go between the ticket office and platforms above.

Luckily, help is at hand. The man is approached by Jozef Šimeg, who politely offers his assistance. Dressed in a plush navy uniform with burgundy trim, gold buttons, a black hat and pristine white gloves, Jozef is one of seven men reviving the role of the traditional baggage porter in the Slovakian capital.

As he heaves the man’s suitcase up the stairs, Jozef explains that he is a former rough sleeper and a vendor for Slovakian street paper Nota Bene. He now works part-time at the station thanks to an innovative new project. After they arrive on the platform, the pair part ways, wishing each other a Merry Christmas. Jozef is left clutching a crisp 10 euro note. “It was like an early Christmas present, the best,” he recalls about his biggest tip.

The free Luggage Porter service was launched in December 2014 by local non-profit Proti prúdu [Against the Stream], which also runs Nota Bene. As well as offering a much-needed public service, the project provides the paper’s vendors with stable, part-time work.

“Usually people see the homeless as the ones who need help. We thought, what if we turn that upside down?” says Sandra Tordová. The CEO of Proti prúdu and Nota Bene adds that the idea was originally suggested by one of their readers.

Jozef and his fellow luggage porters are now a familiar and welcome sight around the station. They offer their services to weary travellers five days a week from 9am-1pm and are supervised by a social worker.

Luggage porter Laco carries bags in the main railway station in Bratislava, Slovakia. Photo: Vladimír ŠimíčekThe project helps the porters to pay off their debts and improve their confidence, as well as motivating them to get back into legal, full-time employment. It also smashes the barrier between the public and the homeless, putting common misconceptions to bed.

“A big thing was the uniforms as this project was entirely based on people believing us and trusting our vendors enough to give them their luggage, so we made them really beautiful and smart,” says Sandra.

Although carrying up to 50 bags and suitcases each shift is taxing work, Jozef is thrilled with his job. Ten months in, he still wears his uniform with immense pride.

“I feel good when I wear the uniform and like the positive reactions people have when they see me wearing it,” he beams.

“People look at me very differently. I hope that this project can change their opinions of homelessness in general because they see that we are very polite, very helpful and we have difficult histories but are trying to move forward and change our lives.”

Jozef, 36, started selling Nota Bene in 2008, shortly after he lost his job as a car mechanic for Volkswagen. With no savings in place, Jozef soon fell behind on rent as he struggled to find work. When he couldn’t even afford the price of a hostel bed, he spent four desperate months sleeping rough in parks around Bratislava.

During that time, he saved up enough money through selling Nota Bene to get off the streets. Eventually, Jozef was able to rent a three bedroom flat with two friends but still struggled to cover his debts.

“I feel good when I wear the uniform. People look at me very differently. I hope that this project can change their opinions of homelessness.”

It’s a common problem for many Nota Bene vendors, and a key factor keeping them in homelessness and without regular employment, says Peter Kadlečík, one of two social workers involved in the Luggage Porters project.

He explains that there is little in the way of subsidised housing for the 4,000 people who are currently homeless in the Slovakian capital. The going rate for a single hostel bed in a twin room is 120-180 euros per month. In order to work, adequate housing is essential but for those who do finally claw their way back into employment, the country’s debt collection process can land a heavy blow on their wages.

Payroll deductions taken by debt collectors are legally required to leave a minimum of just 118 euros in a person’s wage packet. It’s a demoralising prospect that leads many to take illegal jobs instead. This was once the case for Jozef. Now, after six years, he is happy to find secure, legal work thanks to Proti prúdu.

“I believe more in myself – that I can find another job and be successful there – because when I lost my job I was very down physically and mentally and was sleeping rough,” he explains.

“Then I started selling Nota Bene and now I work as a luggage porter. I know better how to manage my money and think about saving for the future. I want to reduce my debts and be successful in another job.”

Jozef and his fellow luggage porters work 20 hours per week, earning three euros an hour on top of any tips they receive, as well as the money they make from selling Nota Bene. Their wages and uniforms are paid for by Proti prúdu, thanks in part to funding from the EEA and Norway Grants [Norway’s contribution to reducing economic and social disparities within the European Economic Area].

Luggage porter Vlado poses for a photo in the main railway station in Bratislava, Slovakia. Photo: Vladimír ŠimíčekAway from the station, the project also provides job coaching, case work and individual and group counselling sessions. Proti prúdu also works with several pro bono lawyers, who help negotiate with creditors to reduce the porters’ debts. The organisation also matches every single euro saved by porters from their salary to help them become financially independent.

Today, the project is going from strength to strength. Its participants are benefiting – and so is the station.

“I’m so proud. I think we’ve made the railway station a really better place, it is much more pleasant now,” says Sandra. In fact, she adds, many passengers now organise their travels according to when the porters are working.

The idea has not only been a hit with Bratislava’s rail passengers. As well as attracting plenty of media attention, the initiative was also voted Best Non-Street Paper Project during the INSP (International Network of Street Papers) 2015 Summit in Seattle.

The project also placed second in the prestigious SozialMarie awards for social innovation, beating 300 other projects from across Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Germany, Poland and Croatia.

Having just finished a busy Monday shift, Jozef says there is a good camaraderie among the team, and no shortage of work. In fact, the Nota Bene porters are now an indispensable part of the train station.

“I appreciate it when they smile and say thank you,” says Jozef of his customers. “People react positively because this is a service that has been needed in this station for many years. People are happy when they see us offering help. It’s nice to get those reactions.”