In early December 2010, over 70 Roma families lived on Coastei Street in downtown Cluj-Napoca, Romania’s second biggest city. Many had been in this long-established community for years.
By Christmas Day, they were gone.
Local authorities swept through and forcibly evicted some 270 people. No consultation, no exploration of feasible alternatives. Those evicted received no real notice and had no opportunity to challenge the decision.
Instead, grandparents, parents, and children found themselves deposited on the outskirts of the city, 10 kilometers from downtown, in Pata Rat—next to the city garbage facility and a former chemical waste dump. They joined a growing community of more than a thousand people, mostly Roma, consigned to inadequate housing on the fringes of Romanian society.
For three years the families have been fighting an uphill battle for some measure of justice. Beginning in the summer of 2011, a coalition of groups mobilized to support the effort. The local civil society organization gLOC organized a visit to Pata Rat, bringing in the European Roma Rights Center, Amnesty International, and Making the Most of EU Funds for Roma (an Open Society initiative).
Working with the Roma community, city officials, and the United Nations Development Program, the groups proposed a project to improve local public services using EU funds set aside for projects aiming to help Roma communities.
A change in city politics aided the project’s chances. Mayor Emil Boc and his deputy Anna Horvath—cognizant that Cluj-Napoca aspires to become a European Capital of Culture in 2021—took it as their task to significantly improve the situation for Roma in the city. Under their leadership, the municipality has worked to foster new discussion about the needs of the Roma community.
As part of the effort to generate projects, the UNDP has employed two community coaches, one Roma and one non-Roma, dedicated to Pata Rat, who continuously supply the decision-makers with information on the needs and aspirations of marginalized communities there. As UNDP project manager Gabriella Tonk explains, she and the two community coaches, Olimpiu Bela Lacatus and Julia Adorjani, aim to facilitate the tailoring of public services to the specific contexts of marginalized communities.
Based on needs identified by the Roma themselves, the city has worked with local NGOs to add an after-school program, a temporary social center, hygiene facilities, a weekly visit from a doctor, and adjusted bus transportation. There is now a sense of positive momentum.
A few weeks ago, there was more good news. After years of effort by the UNDP and the Open Society Foundations to channel EU funds to the problem, the regional development agency approved a project to help Roma living in Pata Rat find work.
Another project to provide social housing for 11 families is expected to follow soon. This will be the first project in Romania that takes advantage of the 2010 amendment to European Union regulation that made housing interventions for marginalized communities eligible for EU funding.
Almost simultaneously, the county court in Cluj-Napoca decided the Coastei Street eviction was illegal. The court ordered the municipality to pay compensation to the evicted families, and to provide them with housing in line with the minimum standards set out in Romanian law.
It is perhaps symbolic that these two milestones have come at the same time. It signals how very different approaches—such as protest action, litigation, and municipal capacity-building—can under certain conditions complement and support one another.
Of course, these first steps only begin to repair the damage of the evictions in Cluj-Napoca. But the progress suggests a useful model for achieving real advances on the ground. Working together, much can be done.