Bruce Lee lives on the streets, says Bucharest-based photographer Dani Gherca, hopping from one place to the next in search of shelter and caring for a close-knit group of homeless individuals who have claimed him as their surrogate father. For Bruce Lee, who was born Florin Hora, sustaining the welfare of those in need— people and stray dogs who like him have been abandoned and cast out of the comforts mainstream society— is a responsibility given to him by God.
Gherca met Bruce Lee by happenstance four years ago, and he welcomed him into his underground world: a set of two small tunnels near Bucharest’s Central Station. Under the protection of the now-forty-one-year-old man, the photographer discovered a group of about fifteen people living from one meal to the next. Life on the streets is a tough one, but Bruce Lee considers this his home. When Gherca arrived, the people he met warmed up to him almost instantly, grateful for the chance to confide in someone who didn’t want anything from them; down here, it’s every man for himself.
For many of the people the photographer met, this life was inevitable; many had been deserted by their parents when they were newborns, left at state-run orphanages and set loose without any government aid at the age of eighteen. Some, like Bruce Lee, ran from the orphanages earlier in hopes of finding something better. Bruce Lee himself fled in 1991 to escape the dreadful conditions that predated the 2007 introduction of Romania into the European Union.
When asked how Bruce Lee’s community survives, Gherca says that they often don’t. Since embarking on his friendship with these people and the documentation of their stories, he’s seen six of them pass away. Underground, growing older is never certain and promises of something more are fragile and diaphanous; “When they speak about the future, they are convinced that they will die in the next few years,” admits the photographer. Wintertime is cruel, and many go without shoes or sufficient clothing.
Since Gherca first met Bruce Lee and the others, the community has undergone a transformation. One year into his documentation, media channels began covering the community, and Bruce Lee was met with derision and harsh judgement from onlookers, who faulted him for his and his fellows’ misfortune. Still, says the photographer, Bruce Lee is devoted to making a home for these people, as well as the stray dogs he finds and takes in off the streets. He buys jackets for everyone in winter from money he makes selling bath salts, a synthetic drug that in Romania is not classified as illegal.
The community was once given food deliveries by local charities, but Bruce Lee fixed up their makeshift home mostly on his own. In the summer of this year, he was accused of and arrested for drug trafficking, and the community broke apart. Gherca saw him in prison soon after, where he learned that he would likely face a conviction; he was accused of selling heroin, although the photographer insists that never once did he hear talk of either methadone or heroin.
Most aid for the homeless population in Romania is only for children under the age of eighteen. This community is in large part shunned and judged, avoided and treated without empathy, and yet here, in these world he calls ExtazTerestru, Gherca found something far more human than much of what can be seen above ground.
These people and dogs, says Gherca, have almost no one to turn to for help, but one woman is working to change that. Raluca Pahomi and the organization Asociatia Homeless provides shelter and housing for dogs and people without a place to call home. To help, please visit Pahomi’s organization online, consider making a donation, or follow them on Facebook.