Being homeless in İstanbul: 'Death would be salvation'

Homelessness in Turkey and particularly in Istanbul is a widespread problem not adequately addressed by the government, according to the founder of an NGO based in Istanbul.

NGOs such as Hayata Sarıl (Embrace Life) Association, which provides food for those living in poverty, try to alleviate hunger and other difficulties faced by the homeless. According to the founder of Hayata Sarıl, Ayşe Tükrükçu, 150,000 people live in the streets of Turkey, 15,000 of which are in Istanbul.

Organizations such as Hayata Sarıl and Deliler Veliler, which provides meals for 800 homeless people, are based in Beyoğlu. Beyoğlu is an entertainment, transit, and shopping hub and is also where a significant portion of homeless people are concentrated in Istanbul. Ahval News spoke to several people living on the streets of Beyoğlu to better understand who they are, what challenges they face, and the services they need.

The local government is not absent from the lives of the homeless. During winters, the Istanbul Municipality takes people off the streets to temporary shelters in Esenyurt-Kıraç nearly 40 kilometers west of Beyoğlu. They provide meals and limited medical care. But when the temperatures rise, they no longer have a place to stay.

Ali Doğan has been on the streets for five years and has been to one of these shelters.

Ali Doğan
Ali Doğan

“In the winter, they loaded us into a car and took us to Esenyurt-Kıraç. We shaved and showered. They gave us a bowl of hot soup. When April 5th came, they ‘shooed’ us away. There was no one who asked us where we were going or what we were going to eat. What they showed us was a short film, and the ending was not happy. Give us a job or a house or pay us a small salary.”

The rest of the year, the homeless on the streets of Beyoğlu must fend for themselves. Many of the people I spoke with came to Istanbul from smaller towns and villages around the country. Istanbul is Turkey’s largest city with 15 million people, and many flock to the city in search of job opportunities.

Candan Dermanlı is a Bulgarian/Kardzhali immigrant who used to work in textiles in Bursa, the center of Turkey’s automotive industry. She left Bursa thinking that “hope is in Istanbul” and to look for a better future. However, she began to work long 12-14-hour days in a textile workshop for little pay. Dermanlı receives about 1,000 TL ($215) for a widows and orphans pension paid out by the state. However, this is not enough to live in Istanbul - Turkey’s most expensive city.

Ahmet Külsoy - Candan Dermanlı

One day, after getting a 10,000 TL loan from the bank, Dermanlı went to get something to eat and then to rest in Gezi Park. When she woke up, her money and bag were stolen, and she was left with no other recourse aside from continuing to live on the streets.

Dindar Açar who is a self-proclaimed cook also came to Istanbul with high expectations.

"Istanbul is a bottomless well. I came here with great hope. I started to work at Hacı Abdullah. They then said that they were downsizing, and I was laid off. I collect cardboard from the trash and sell it to buy alcohol and cigarettes. This life is not bearable with drinking. Actually, I want to go back to my village, but I'm embarrassed. My wife left me when things went awry.”

Dindar Acar
Dindar Acar

Ali Doğan (62) was working in Istanbul as a plastering expert while his family was living in Erzincan in 1992. On March 13, 653 people died in Erzincan, and nearly 4,000 people were injured.

“We were doing a plastering job for the exterior of a commercial building in Gaziosmanpaşa (Istanbul). I felt wrong, and I didn’t feel like working, but we were going to get the job done on time. Then it all fell apart. News came that there was an earthquake in Erzincan. My wife Feride, son Sedat, and daughter Şeyda were in the village. I called, but there was no answer! I went into a panic. When I got to the village, I experienced the real earthquake. They were trying to get the bodies out from the house. Aside from one relative, no one was saved. I was the only one left.”

After returning to Istanbul, Doğan said he lost all joy for life. And then when poor economic conditions affected the construction industry, he could not hold down a job.

When asked if he had any health problems, Doğan said, “Not for now. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Death would be salvation for me!”

Indeed, most of those living on the streets were once employed but lost their jobs. Turkey’s most recent economic crisis has boosted the unemployment rate. In March, Turkey’s unemployment rate hovered in the double digits at 10.1 percent, and, earlier this week, inflation reached a 14-year high climbing to 15.4 percent year-on-year.

Security at night is another major issue cited by people I spoke with. When asked about the quality of sleep he got at night, Doğan said, “What sleep? What we have is fox's sleep. There's no getting comfortable with drug users. One guy came up and laid on the corner of my blanket. I asked him what he was doing, and he said he was going to lie down. You can't argue as you don't know what type of trouble you'll encounter.”

Açar told me that the police come and go at night to run criminal record checks and said that “there’s no sleeping comfortably at night.”

Aydoğan Boran, who has been on the streets of Beyoğlu for the past 20 years, mirrored similar sentiments about safety at night.

aydogan boran
Aydogan Boran

“I've gotten used to being homeless. But, I don't ever want it to be nighttime. The concrete becomes cold even though it's summer. My friends from the shops had given me blankets, and some people stole them while I was sleeping. This life has taught me to stay away from people."

Some living on the streets have turned to shopkeepers or others working in the area for help. Cumhur Ertuş, who is a realtor in Beyoğlu, regularly helps as much as he can.

“I try to solve problems such as food, clothes, and hygiene. But it’s a lot. I don’t regret that I help out, but it’s beyond us. If the state is ‘social,’ then they need to do what’s needed.”

Despite poor hygienic conditions and a lack of security, some still have hope. Dermanlı said that after she pays her bank loan back, she plans to apply for another home to rent a house. She told me, “There’s nothing like having your own home.”

She didn’t want to talk after saying that.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.