"My feet get frostbitten"

Living on the streets in Sofia, Bulgaria

“My feet get frostbitten, my socks get wet, and as I have no extra pair to change them, I get ill.

“But then there is another problem – I have no money to buy medicine.”

Irina Vassileva, 59, was once a nurse who worked in some of the large, well-respected hospitals in Sofia, Bulgaria. Then she was thrown out of her house by her husband and she has been homeless ever since.

Now Irina survives by searching through rubbish bins and collecting cans, plastic bottles and paper. She has worked hard all her life – but now there is no safe home to return to at the end of a long day. 

At first glance, Irina looks typically homeless – untidy hair and old clothes she has not been able to wash – but then you spot the lipstick and the earrings she still wears: symbols that hint at the well-kept woman she once was. 

“It’s very difficult living on the streets,” said Irina. “I think there is a stink coming from me but I have no place to take a bath or wash my clothes.” 


The hardest part about being homeless for Irina is the loneliness – and the cold weather. Winter in Sofia is harsh, with snow from December to February, and temperatures often falling to -10C (14F) or -15C (5F). Irina has found shelter in an building in a deserted industrial park. It is chilly and there is neither water nor electricity. While she is happy to have a place to sleep, she worries that other people will steal her things, and several times she has been attacked.

I think there is a stink coming from me, but I have no place to take a bath or wash my clothes.Irina considers herself a strong woman; nevertheless, she often cries. She feels weak and powerless in this struggle for survival.

For the last two years, she has been supported by Mission Without Borders’ (MWB) StreetMercy project in Sofia, where she receives not only hot, nutritious meals – but has friends who support her. She has also been provided with clothes, blankets and medicine. Irina is a Christian, and the Bible messages she hears at StreetMercy help her deepen her faith and trust in the Lord. For her, StreetMercy is a place where she finds not only other people who are struggling with the same problems as her, but also, in the MWB staff and volunteers, treasured friends who care about her. On some days, the food given by MWB is the only food she can rely on. There are days when she goes to bed hungry, waiting impatiently for the next day to come and with it the meal provided by the Mission.

“This project is of great help to me. I may say that I am still alive thanks to it,” she said. 

35,760

35,760 meals were distributed to homeless people in Sofia last year 

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