A former UK police officer, Ian Tilling is the founder and president of the Casa Ioana Association, a Romanian non-profit organisation supporting women and children experiencing domestic abuse and family homelessness in Bucharest. Until very recently, Ian was also the president of the European Federation of National NGOs Working with the homeless (FEANTSA) and has been the Romania representative for 13 years. Ian is the chair of a European-wide cluster of experts working on the participation of service users in the services that affect them. His FEANTSA work has taken him to Latin American countries and he has travelled extensively throughout Europe. Ian is married with four children from a previous marriage.

1. Please tell us about who you are and what you do.

My name is Ian Tilling and I am the founder and president of the Casa Ioana Association supporting women and children experiencing domestic abuse and family homelessness. Very recently, I stepped down as the president of The European Federation of National NGOs Working with the homeless (FEANTSA). 

2. Share your backstory with us. How did your business or organisation come about and what was it that switched you on to this area in the first place?

In 1990, I visited Romania with a paediatric nurse and a van full of material aid, having driven across Europe from Dover. It was an epic journey! After arriving in Bucharest, we joined some UK nurses and worked for a month in an institution for children deemed so psychologically and physically disabled that they were pronounced ‘unrecoverable’. It was straight from hell and despite my police experience; nothing had prepared me for the horrors of that place. I was compelled to do something positive amid all this anguish.   

After returning to the UK I made frequent trips to the institution and having organised a convoy of 100 vehicles and 300 volunteers, drove across Europe visiting 15 various institutions throughout Romania. I retired from the police service in early 1992, and moved to Bucharest to start a two-year project that would convert a small apartment block in Ferentari to provide lifelong foster care to some of the children in Plateresti, where the institution was located. The project turned out to be a disaster with the government breaking its promises, some block residents not being rehoused and bribes being demanded for essential papers. The lack of progress resulted in the project being abandoned in late 1994. Spurred on by Romanian friends I was persuade to create a Romanian non-governmental organisation, which I called Casa Ioana. Using international volunteers, we converted the block into a Resource Centre so that local service providers could establish their own projects.

In 1997, Casa Ioana opened the first emergency night shelter for homeless men and provided professional support services that enabled many of its residents to get back on their feet. In 2002, we established another Centre in Bucharest that provided shelter to families and single women.  During 2005, it was becoming clear that domestic abuse was a leading cause of family homelessness and although parents were able to receive emergency shelter with the local authorities, it was conditional on their children being placed into local authority care. Because of this, Casa Ioana focused all its attention on this particularly vulnerable group. 

Over the years, Casa Ioana has developed good practice in the areas of safe temporary accommodation and comprehensive psychosocial support for its beneficiaries. We have developed ground-breaking training workshops associated with life-skills, soft skills for the workplace, advice and assistance in obtaining employment, and financial literacy. 

Today, Casa Ioana celebrates its 25th Anniversary and has become Bucharest’s leading independent provider of a broad range of services for women and children experiencing domestic abuse and family homelessness. Around 85% of our beneficiaries are empowered to make a successful move on into jobs and rented accommodation.

I came to Romania in response to the horrific images of children existing in squalid institutions, determined to ease some of the suffering. It was soon obvious that it was not going to be a quick fix and what were needed most were services that would lift vulnerable people out of poverty and institutional care, whilst supporting them in moving forward. It coincided with thoughts about what I was going to do with my life once I retired from the police. I thought I would give Romania a go.

In truth, when the foster care project collapsed in 1994, I found myself in a difficult place and returning to the UK would have been difficult. I used this period of depression to confront my demons and made peace with myself. It proved to be life changing. 

3. What do you think or hope the future has in store for you and your business? Where do you see yourself or your organisation five years from now?

I would like to be able to say that in five years’ time, Casa Ioana will have completed its mission and no longer existed because gender-based violence had been eradicated, gender equality had been established and it had ceased to be one of the most notable human rights violations within all societies. Moreover, the development of social equity will have meant that economic policy, justice and fairness in social policy had succeeded and no one lived in poverty anymore.

As the Reverend Martin Luther King pronounced in 1963, “I have a dream…”, and so do I, although I must be pragmatic also. There have been little inroads in the intervening 57 years for black civil rights, equity and justice. 

Although I will be a very young 75 years old in 2025, I still see myself as having an active role (albeit a reduced one) in Casa Ioana. It is a big part of my life and I enjoy immensely working in the organisation – why would I step down when I’m enjoying my work so much? I am determined though to make more time for family and friends, who have all selflessly supported me in my journey!

For the reasons I mentioned above, Casa Ioana will continue to serve those suffering abuse and destitution. Our second Centre will be functioning after Casa Ioana managed to raise the finances to refurbish the building, with both Centres serving 16 families in total. We will have built on our successes and established strong partnerships with the corporate sector and other agencies enabling us to expand to other cities throughout Romania. Our bespoke ‘Soft Skills for the Workplace” training workshops will continue to provide economic independence for survivors of domestic abuse and homelessness. Consequently, hundreds of families will have gotten back onto their feet and be living fulfilling lives. 

4. How has lockdown been for you and for your business and what have you done that has helped you personally and professionally?

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a very anxious period for Casa Ioana. We have the care of 9 vulnerable families who have been affected adversely like many other families. With schools closed, many mothers were unable to work and lost their jobs. The pandemic saw a steep increase in the incidences of domestic abuse, which put increased pressure on Casa Ioana as well as our partner organisations dealing with the phenomena.  

Our traditional donors unsurprisingly focused their help on the health sector and we were forced to cancel a major fundraising dinner and dance scheduled for the spring. Our limited funds have meant having to make cuts to an already tight budget. 

We were forced to ‘close’ the Centre at one point during the lockdown after the government announced a complete lockdown for those living in temporary accommodation and receiving social assistance. Furthermore, a member of staff was required to move into the Centre during the lockdown before being replaced by another member of staff after 14 days. Virtually all of Casa Ioana’s staff team have young children so the measure was very difficult to implement. Beneficiaries that were still working feared losing their jobs if they complied. Following discussions with the staff team and beneficiaries, it was decided to close the Centre until the restriction was removed. For some of our beneficiaries, it meant retuning temporarily to an abusive household until this lockdown was lifted two weeks later. Fortunately, the measure was lifted after 14 days and our beneficiaries retuned.

Generally, we followed the advice and worked from home, although staff worked one day in the Centre on a rota basis. Obtaining personal protective equipment was a nightmare with little available and hugely marked up prices for the few items that were available.

The Covid-19 restrictions required me to remain in lockdown throughout this period because my age classified me as ‘vulnerable’. I had some respite though, a degree in sociology and social work meant that I was an ‘essential worker’, so I was able to visit the Centre for brief periods now and again.

Personally, I used this time to refurbish my apartment and to enjoy regular contact with family via Zoom. Previously, my contact was irregular and involved one member of the family at a time. Our wonderful weekly family get together is scheduled to continue, importantly for me as I have just become a grandfather again to another beautiful baby girl! 

On a professional basis, I used the time to take a strategic look at the organisation and how Casa Ioana could emerge from the crisis stronger and leaner. It was a very critical assessment and in parts, I was forced to contemplate uncomfortable decisions. I am confident however, that Casa Ioana will recover and use the lessons it has learned to better serve the people we support.

5. What’s your take on Bucharest and Romania. What are the highs and the lows in your opinion?

Bucharest is a very different place compared to the rest of Romania. In contradiction to the city’s overcrowded communist style prefabricated blocks of flats, deserted onetime beautiful mansions and villas, and gridlocked traffic, the few resplendent parks bring a little respite to this jostling city. Similarly, the extraordinarily beauty of the Romanian countryside is often marred by discarded rubbish and illegal rubbish sites.

Bucharest and the country has changed significantly over the years that I have lived here, much for the better. It is undoubtedly the safest city I have lived in; including my first four years spent living in the Ferentari-Zăbrăuți slum together with 300 impoverished Roma families. Romania has successfully attracted many international companies to do business here, resulting in high quality amenities including shopping malls, recreational facilities and more restaurants than can be counted! Other Romanian cities are also developing quickly and the wealth is slowly trickling down to poorer areas of the country. Romania is changing for the better, but slowly.

Despite its reputation for being the most biogeographically diverse country in the EU with snow-capped mountains, green hills covered in forests and vineyards, sandy Black Sea beaches and Europe’s largest and best-preserved delta, it is still plagued by corruption. Despite efforts to stamp out bribery, it still permeates throughout some national and local authority personalities and continues to create much inequality.  

Romania has been host to an incredible personal journey of discovery and fulfilment together with its own highs and lows. Bucharest has been my home for 28 years, the longest period that I have lived in one place. Whether I adopted Romania or Romania adopted me is not important, the fact that I live in a country that I have grown to love and become part of the larger Romanian family means everything to me.

6. What is your must do/must visit/favorite thing to do or show off to visitors here in Bucharest and Romania at large?

In Bucharest, it would to divert from the main boulevards and to meander along quiet leafy streets, to peer over tall walls and imposing wrought iron gates amidst overgrown vegetation. Many lonely decrepit and abandoned buildings can tell a story immersed in history, if you only care to explore.

It is not easy to choose a place in the countryside as Romania is blessed with so many beautiful landscapes, but one much-loved place is Lake Vidraru, an artificial lake created in 1965, by the Vidraru Dam on the Argeș River. The only access road is via the spectacular Transfagarasan road between Curtea de Arges and Cartisoara.

7. What is your number 1 recommendation now for a book/film/series/app/ or gadget?

Produced in 2012, the still relevant and very powerful “Why Poverty?” is a ground breaking, series of films to get people talking about poverty, wealth and inequality. Together with 70 broadcasters, the campaign created the first ever global-dialogue on poverty. 

Over the last 30 years, over 1 billion people have come out of poverty, although 736 million men, women and children are still classified as living in extreme poverty – surviving on less than $1.90 a day. 

“Why poverty?” takes an in depth look at global inequality, asking how poverty can still exist in a world with so much wealth?

8. If you could eat in any restaurant in all of Romania and have dinner with anyone in the world (not a husband/wife/relative) which restaurant would that be and with which person?

The restaurant would have to be Blue Margareta in Bucharest. A very hospitable husband and wife team run this Mexican, Brazilian, Latin, Argentinian eatery like none other. It is truly a lovely experience! 

The person I would most want to have dinner with is my former Secondary School headmaster, Hugh Morris, to tell him what I’ve managed to achieve in life and to thank him for the trust he placed in me. I was not always a good kid and he took me under his wing and helped guide me. In three short years, I was appointed Head Boy. Mr Morris’ direction helped me to have the confidence to launch into a very successful police career, understand the meaning of responsibility and to live a compelling altruistic and very rewarding life.

9. Sum up your business in one sentence, what it is and why should people engage with it.

Casa Ioana is different to most similar organisations because it does not simply focus on offering short-term shelter, but on providing temporary accommodation and comprehensive psychosocial support that empowers its residents to create a new beginning for themselves – free from fear.

10.  Describe your Romania in one word.

Home.

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