BUCHAREST, Romania — The stench in the city’s overheated sewers is so wretched, particularly in one tunnel of the Grozavesti-Radio neighborhood, that someone unfamiliar with the smell must lunge outside for fresh air.
In the sewer’s dim recesses, filthy children huddle with adults — all considered "street kids" — and breathe in the dizzying narcotic fumes of a solvent-based glue through plastic bags clutched to their mouths.
For Gabi, 31, who resorted to sewer life when he ran away from a state orphanage at age 14, the fumes kill his hunger pangs, or in the plain English he’s learned in an Internet cafe, are used "instead of meals."
Gabi and some of his 14 other sewer mates — either orphans or abused runaways — acknowledge in their native Romanian tongue conveyed through a translator that life should have more to offer than stealing or begging.
They then regroup on a rank mattress to inhale more glue.
These sewer-dwelling street kids are where Susan V. Booth of West Haven, who runs a private orphanage in Bucharest, wants to now direct her energy.
No matter how many times Booth, 56, climbs into the sewers and sees such destitution, she is determined her nonprofit child protection agency, Archway Inc., will eventually persuade the street kids to leave the sewers behind.
After all, Booth said if they can endure their hellish conditions, a stable existence of showers and meals may appear enticing if she can convince them to tap into the emotions many of them tuned out years ago.
"These kids are so resilient. It just amazes me," said Booth, who a ddecade ago turned the porch of her West Haven home into a donation area brimming with clothes and medicine for Archway’s outreach programs.
"I don’t know if I could have done what they have done. I would have been dead," said Booth, who has been mugged, robbed and falsely imprisoned since a television news program inspired the Metro-North railroad conductor to help Romania’s less fortunate children. Since 2001, she has plucked nearly two dozen kids out of the sewers to live at Archway Inc.’s orphanage.
Archway’s staff spends $10,000 per month to provide the children with basic necessities, including obtaining identification papers all Romanians need to be eligible for school and work.
But with Archway’s financial situation uncertain, Booth is concerned about the future of street children like Gabi or the pregnant teenage mothers. Financial troubles have already forced her to end the sewer outreach clothing and food programs last fall.
"I’m so excited," said Booth, who intends to become an unpaid consultant to the Romanian government as it attempts to restructure its social service system.
Finger by finger, Booth lists her plan’s main priorities: sell the orphanage building; use the money to buy a larger building or get the government to donate an abandoned building; relocate her orphans to that building and open up a social services facility that would serve as a model in post-Communist Romania.
The facility would double the size of the 25-bed Archway orphanage. More children need help because Romania banned international adoption, except by close relatives, in 2001. Booth would also tap former Archway employee and social worker Mirabela Mahu, who forged deep relationships with the street kids and is godmother to one of Booth’s orphans, to run a child day care center so street parents can work.
Booth also wants to outfit the facility with a center for missing and exploited children.
"I can’t imagine doing anything else, and the thing is now, if I don’t do it, then there are not a lot of people over (in Romania) that will," Booth said.
If all goes as planned, Booth proposed the government assume responsibility of the building after one year of operation so she can climb back into the sewers like she did on a regular basis when she arrived in Romania in 1997.
Romania’s National Authority for Protection of Children’s Rights in Bucharest has yet to learn of her plans.
However, Ioana Nedelcu, chief of services for its Strategies, Programs and Training Department said the government envisions a closer working relationship between local government and nongovernmental authorities, like Archway, to expand its current social services for the street kids. The government now offers them upgraded orphanages (now called placement centers), housing programs and medical aid for newborns.
Nedelcu said the government plans to launch any new programs first on the local level and then bring in private agencies. The country has 1,140 state placement centers and 405 private orphanages.
One such new program will target drug treatment for street kids, which the national authority wants to implement in the near future to further decrease the country’s street kid population. In the 1990s, there were an estimated 2,000 homeless children. Now there are 400, said Cosmina Simiean, the national authority’s street kids project manager and the child protection minister’s senior counsel. She attributed the decline to aging street children, government’s social services and the aggressive efforts of the private agencies like Archway.
She said a coordination of efforts will take time, not only because it’s difficult to convince long-term street kids to resume another lifestyle, but because the government needs to restructure social services from scratch.
"We are not there yet to have a full closed-circle of social services, but we are on the right path," said Simiean.
Laurenteu, 33, who spent the last 15 years in the sewers following his release from a state orphanage, does not have much faith in the government.
"If the government said they are so involved in so many programs, (we) should be getting help," he said via a translator.
Nearby in the Grozavesti-Metrou neighborhood, Elena, 18, covers dozens of intravenous drug scars with a jacket and then crawls out of a sewer to breastfeed her daughter, one-year-old Bianca. Unlike Laurenteu, the runaway said she wants to believe in the government’s promises and Booth’s commitment to help street kids because she wants to finish night classes.
Perhaps then, she said she can rent an apartment and buy the $200 train ticket to send her child to be raised by Elena’s parents in Moldova.
"(I) will always prefer to have a place to stay, a stable place," she said before returning to the stifling hot sewer she and her "husband" decorated to resemble a living room, right down to the jury-rigged television.
To learn more about Archway, Inc., visit www.archwaykids.org.