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Homelessness in Spain
"We help them recover their self-esteem"
by Carmen Font

A survey of homelessness in Spain, highlighting several programs which encourage renewal of self-esteem and relationship skills as the keys to reorientation.  


Barcelona, Spain
‘A Shelter by Right’ was the motto of the Spanish national day for the homeless on 18 January 1998, which denounced the plight of the homeless. Homelessness in Spain is not postcard picturesque: 273,000 people out of a population of 39.6 million live on the streets, in hostels, or in sub-standard houses; 15 per cent of housing in Spain is empty - the highest rate in Europe.

According to Cáritas, the main church institution dealing with the homeless, the problem boils down to a lack of political will on the part of central government to tackle public housing, thus further burdening a welfare state already weakened. Hence the request to the government to double the present housing budget from 1 to 2 per cent of the GDP.

The well-off section of the population and tourist resorts are the engines of new developments - more Spaniards have a second home than all other nationals within the European Union, while at the same time the building of council housing has dropped 8 per cent in the last 10 years. Rented properties are scarce, and prices disproportionately high for the average income of Spaniards, causing a large number of evictions among low-income families. The government neither allocates specific funds nor advocates a minimum income to help this group. It simply transfers responsibilities to local authorities and guarantees only the basic social benefits. Basic incomes for the homeless are not covered by these measures and their essential needs are not met, resulting in their condition becoming chronic. The needs vary according to the region in which they live, but the costs average some 38,000 pesetas ($248) a month.

Unemployment (63 per cent), family breakdown (26 per cent, especially among women), alcohol (19 per cent) and health problems (14 per cent mental illnesses) are the main causes. Eight out of 10 homeless people are men, although the number of women has increased by 11 per cent in the last 10 years. The average age is 42, but there are now more younger homeless people - many of them drug addicts, especially in the capital Madrid, where 26 per cent are under 30. They are mainly Spanish, although more and more immigrants arrive from North Africa. Twenty-four per cent have been homeless for over 10 years, 35 per cent from one to five years, and 20 per cent for a year or less. Their health is weak: only 16 per cent are free from physical or mental illness.

The homeless are more, or less, visible in cities according to the time of year: in summer many ‘migrate’ to the country to pick fruit. Others sell the popular homeless newspaper La Luz de la Farola (‘Streetlight’), to support themselves.

How do they survive?

Throughout the country there is a network of 129 hostels and day-centres run mostly by church organizations which have strict rules and only allow short stays. They tend to be under-used, generally failing to attract the homeless, and not designed to fulfill all the users’ needs.

The ‘Arrels’ (or ‘Roots’) day centre, the first open and integral day centre in Barcelona, offers much more: "In our centre," says Ramón Noro, "we provide showers, meals, a room to leave their belongings - they love that - which they can use freely without being required, for instance, to have a shower to get into the centre. We help them recover their self-esteem by treating each case individually. Then we co-operate with the local government to get them an allowance, or help give them an independent life again, a process which might take over 10 years."

Supervised flats (private houses overseen by social workers where several homeless people coexist) are rare, despite having proved crucial to re-regaining an autonomous life. Carolina from Reviure (‘Live Again’) says: "Six men live in our flat for six months, with a series of problems to solve - work, family, alcohol. At first they are passive - they have lost socializing skills and motivation. However, when they have a key to go in and out, they start to be responsible for their house, appreciate the company of the others, and end up wanting a job."

"Unusual project"

The problem of the homeless in Spain clearly requires both political and grassroots will. The work and 10 years’ experience of Arrels has inspired a number of other initiatives, like Sostre (‘Shelter’), for instance, a most unusual project serving as a bridge between the homeless and public services. Seeing the great number of homeless in their streets, residents of a seaside neighbourhood in Barcelona organized themselves to take the homeless into a house belonging to the local parish where six people can lodge every night. "It is a very cheap project indeed because neighbourhood families take care of them on a voluntary basis," explains Gloria, one of the volunteers. The street group brings homeless people to the house where families cook the dinners, others help with cleaning, while another team helps them get an allowance. One of the team is a doctor who cares for their immediate health. "We decided that the neighbourhood problem was our problem, aware that nobody else would help people in such a bad condition."

"Bad condition? Really? It doesn’t look so bad," I remark, seeing a neatly dressed homeless man looking at me.

"Oh, you didn’t see him in the beginning; it took ages before he agreed to have a shower and change his clothes. But we don’t impose rules," adds Gloria quickly, smiling. "The main problem for homeless people is that they cannot reach the primary public network because they have slipped so low on the social ladder, they have moved so far to the margins of society that they have more or less ceased to exist in bureaucratic terms, are not registered as citizens, and therefore do not, or cannot, receive help from the social services. If they do get help, it is limited and short-term. They don’t receive long-term follow-up assistance. Our main concern is to restore them not only to nourishing food, hygienic habits, and better health but also socializing skills so that they can enter a wider programme."

Initial approach

Looking around at the homely, family-style decoration of the house, I gather the keynote is a personalized relationship with the homeless. So how do they go about approaching a homeless person? Simply go up to them in the street? The small team first observe, then introduce themselves and offer food and a bed. Do they succeed?

"Most of them say yes, because they know us - after all we live in the same neighbourhood. Some say no. The main thing is to let them see that you accept them as they are, that you want a better life for them, and create a friendly relationship on an equal footing - something big programmes fail to provide."

I remind Gloria that according to statistics most homeless people have an alcohol, drug or mental health problem; so how can they accept them from such situations?

"Well, most are alcoholic, before or after becoming homeless; some have mental health problems, especially now that many mental hospitals and institutions are closing down, but I wouldn’t say drug addiction or AIDS or delinquency are among the main causes of homelessness. The average Spanish homeless person has no family ties, a poor education, a certain psychological profile of emotional instability, and is a victim of unemployment. Most are young or middle- aged men, although more and more women are entering this group now, as well as immigrants from North Africa."

With this profile, Sostre found that a practical way of creating a relationship of mutual trust was to allow them to stay in the house in the same way as they lived in the streets, and so the homeless didn’t wash themselves, slept on the floor instead of in the beds, and even got drunk. "We have to put up with a lot in the first contacts, because we give them total freedom, although we don’t allow violence. Somebody who has lived in the streets for 15 years even has a different mental structure. He cannot grasp, for example, that having a shower is a social habit. They lead very isolated lives, they don’t organize themselves to claim their rights, and find it difficult to relate to others because nobody relates to them, or relates to them badly. So, right from the start we talk to them a lot, take them to the doctor, for a walk or to the cinema, so that we can get to know about their lives."

Building the relationship

Gloria is convinced we all have set principles, the homeless too, and that only through a personal friendly relationship can you grant concessions on these principles, and out of it learn another dimension of reality. "Let’s say you are certain you would never in your life spend money going to the opera. But if your mother’s greatest dream is to take you to the Liceo Opera House - you would dress up and go. With a homeless person something similar happens. When this mutual friendly relationship is built they become more co-operative. Gradually, they drink less because you ask them to do so, and end up realizing they are living better lives, which enhances their self-esteem."

Once the homeless person has recovered certain habits, Sostre aims to direct them to a bigger programme. Some of these homeless people are not registered as citizens, so the volunteers legalize their status and help them receive the basic social security allowance.

If they are young their integration to the labour market presents gloomy prospects. Although most of them are in training programmes organized by the government or the church, only 4 per cent get a job because the private sector does not accept that they are "competitive".

Self-employment and co-operatives have been the traditional occupational outlets for the homeless, but some companies are now leading the way in new initiatives to train homeless people in their own small businesses to help them get into the job-market.

"Will you find me a job?"

Paco, 39, has been on the street for a year now with no family - only a sister who does not want to know him. He worked from an early age repairing furniture until the company closed down leading to long-term unemployment. Then he went to work at sea; when that did not succeed, he turned to alcohol. "I have been told terrible things about hostels. I usually sleep in an abandoned shop, where skinheads sometimes come by. I’ve only been bothered once by a policeman. He woke me up and told me to go with him to a café; it was very cold. Great, I thought, a hot meal. But he only took me for a coffee and a doughnut. Then he brought me back and said: ‘You cannot live here, you have to find a place to stay.’ It was very humiliating. Where am I supposed to live?"

Saying goodbye, he holds my hand tightly. Nothing to lose, he asks: "Will you find me a job?"

From the November 1998 issue of Share International


Articles about homelessness

FAQ on homelessness
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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005