Year in, year out, organisations and volunteers in Barcelona work tirelessly to come up with solutions to the age-old issue of homelessness. As they battle to reduce figures, which currently stand at an estimated 3,000, evictions and rising rent prices continue to add fuel to the fire. For the newly homeless, temporary accommodation and government housing are viable options, often preventing them from being swallowed up by the shelter system. But what about those who have slipped through the cracks, ending up on the street or in a hostel? Why, despite government policies and the will to escape life on the street, do the chronically homeless keep finding themselves back at square one? Organisations from across Europe are now taking the reins in an attempt to answer these questions and Barcelona is doing its bit.
Of the homeless in Barcelona, around 940 are living on the streets, with a further 900 in shelters or hostels. Little change has been noted in these figures since 2011. Under the current system—often referred to as the staircase model—those looking to access government housing must first satisfy a number of conditions, with independent living acting as the carrot on the stick. Addictions must be kicked and medication taken before the door to a new home is opened. As these goals are achieved, the steps of the staircase can be climbed; first a hostel, followed by temporary accommodation, and finally independent living. Fulfilling these prerequisites while living in shelters or on the street is a monstrous task. With little support and surrounded by temptation, a permanent home remains a pipe dream for the majority of people who have fallen victim to chronic homelessness.
In recent years, the incompatibility between public services and those in need has become impossible to ignore. As a result, private organisations and charities Europe-wide have mobilised to tackle the issue and find alternative responses. One of the forerunners in this search for a new solution is Housing First. This programme rejects traditional methods, making the provision of accommodation the first step. Once the participant is settled in their new home, issues such as substance abuse or mental health are then addressed. The focus is on giving autonomy back to the participant and allowing them to choose when they are ready to take the next step. Housing First services have been incorporated into homelessness strategies in France, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden. Pilot programmes have also been set up in a number of other countries, including Spain.
Under the Hábitat project, the RAIS Foundation launched Spain’s first Housing First pilot programmes in Barcelona, Madrid and Málaga in 2014. "The objective is the provision of permanent and stable accommodation, along with all the necessary support needed for the homeless person in order to stay there long-term," explained Begoña Pastor, director of the RAIS Foundation in the Mediterranean area. From the beginning, the programme has had the support of Barcelona city council. However, as the duty to provide services for the homeless falls on regional and local governments, it has not yet been implemented on a national level. Many of the country’s regional governments want to see results before switching to a new model, so the RAIS Foundation has set about providing them with a tried and tested alternative.
Programme participants, all of whom had to be over 18 and chronically homeless, were chosen by professionals working for municipal homeless networks and services. From those referred, 28 were chosen and handed keys to their new homes. The only conditions were that the new tenants agree to one weekly visit from the Housing First team, pay 30 percent of their income (if any), live harmoniously with the neighbours and attend an evaluation interview every six months. Since its beginning the number of participants has grown to 117 people, 10 of whom are in Barcelona.
One of the biggest obstacles faced by the foundation has been the acquisition of adequate housing. The minimal social housing stock coupled with rising property prices has been a big problem and, according to Pastor, has made the process in Barcelona extremely complex. Surprisingly, it still manages to be cost effective.
Although it may seem costly to pay high rent on an apartment for someone dealing with combinations of substance abuse and mental illness, the contrary is true. Pastor reported that "the cost of Hábitat is €34 per person per day, similar (or lower) in cost to traditional resources but with more intense support and a more permanent solution: the people stay off the street". When on the streets, people often ricochet off different state services, resulting in high government spending. Under Housing First the use of services is controlled. Safe from the dangers outside, the likelihood of needing emergency services is reduced. The 100 percent staying rate is testimony to the fact that these organisations are doing something right.
Statistics aside, the main purpose of this project is to improve the welfare and lives of those on the street. Maria was one of the first 28 participants in the project. She invited Metropolitan to her home in Gràcia to speak about her experience with Housing First.
Before entering the programme, Maria had been living on the streets and in hostels around Barcelona for more than eight years. Originally from Romania, she moved to Barcelona after the death of her husband. With few prospects in her native country, she was convinced by some friends that moving to Spain would provide her with opportunities and a future. It wasn’t long before it dawned on Maria that her friends were taking advantage of her and she was forced to cut ties.
"I was alone. I changed apartments as the one I was in was too big and expensive," Maria explained nervously. "But bit by bit the money was running out and I didn’t know what to do next. I was always worrying. I had a bit of money left, but only for things like tobacco, so I went to a hostel."
This marked the beginning of Maria’s journey into the world of homelessness. She began learning Spanish and soon found a waitressing job in Granollers. This was short-lived as she didn’t have her papers in order and soon found herself on the streets again.
Lack of papers is just one of the factors that leaves many like Maria out in the cold. It has been reported by La Xarxa d'Atenció a Persones Sense Llar (XAPSLL) that more than half of the people using support services are foreign nationals. 10.9 percent are EU citizens, whilst non-EU nationals make up 47.5 percent. Of the latter, 19.6 percent are in an irregular situation, making it difficult to find work, use health services and access government aid, leading many into situations of social exclusion and chronic homelessness.
Maria’s experiences of homelessness have affected her emotionally: "The street is so difficult. For men it’s hard, but for women it’s harder. Life on the street changed me so much. Now I’m getting better, but I’m not the woman I was before. I used to be soft, but it made me hard." She swallows her tears—reflecting on this period of her life is clearly difficult. "I had to learn to survive. I’m proud of myself because in doing that I didn’t get in any trouble with anyone. I didn’t touch drugs or any of that nonsense."
Fear for her life, threats of rape and a constant sense of danger surrounded Maria on a daily basis. The temptation of substance abuse, the very thing that will block access to state services, is ever-present. Showing up to appointments drunk or late reduces the chance of accessing housing and climbing the steep staircase to independent living. Many give up and continue on the streets.
Maria’s life took a turn for the better in September 2014, when she was approached by a social worker and told that she had been chosen to participate in the Housing First programme. Two years and five months later, Maria is still happily living in her bedsit in Gràcia.
"When I started living in my paradise—that's what I call it here—everything changed so radically because I didn’t need anything anymore. I finally had the security most people never live without. Now I feel calm. I feel clean. I feel thankful for these girls [the social workers] who are angels from God for treating me so well. I’m so thankful for everything." Maria continued, "Being here in this house has allowed me to put my life in order, to live like a normal person and say, now the suffering stops. From the moment I got here the suffering stopped. They saved my life. Sometimes I think I would have died on the streets. In the street there’s no future. Well actually, there is if you fight for it. Otherwise you won't achieve anything."
Memories of homelessness still haunt Maria. She speaks about how she sometimes wakes up and remembers the fear and the danger that surrounded her, but she is quick to remind herself how far she has come. She now sits in a small, well-kept apartment. Vases of flowers and small keepsakes decorate her home, and it is clear how proud she is. She’d like to buy more for the place and has ideas of things she’d like to change but is aware that this will take time as she is currently living on the funds given to her by the foundation (€25-€30 per week).
"I think the worst is over. And I thank the foundation every time I go to sleep and every time I wake up. I cross my fingers that the programme continues, for those of us who need it." The Hábitat project has provided Maria with a present and a future.
The future of the foundation itself is bright. It has already surpassed this year’s target of housing 100 people. Housing First also featured as one of the main points on Barcelona city council’s ‘Plan for the fight against homelessness’ presented in 2016. In addition to the private Housing First apartments provided by the Arrels Foundation and the RAIS Foundation, the Ajuntament has pledged to triple the 50 apartments that are currently in use and provide 100 more over the next two years. Judging from the success of the pilot projects, changes in the policy look like they are on the horizon.
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Photos courtesy of Salvador Vergara
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ARTE AL MARGEN
Arte al Margen is a Toulouse Business School student initiative led by 23-year-old Yanis Lamari. Members of the project provided disposable cameras to people living on the streets of Barcelona to document the world from their perspective.
For four months, those who often feel invisible in our society snapped pictures of their counterparts, living conditions and other things that inspired them. Arte al Margen and the Arrels Foundation then collaborated to organise an exhibition of more than 40 of their images.
The homeless were the artists, they were the ones who chose the best photos and put poetic titles on each to describe the beautiful and/or disturbing situations of their daily lives. Through Arte al Margen's project, they were able to express themselves and show that they too have things to contribute.
LENDING A HELPING HAND
"Sometimes I think we would starve to death if it wasn’t for you all", were the unsettling words of a homeless man to a fellow compatriot and volunteer from Poland on a weekly Esperança food run. As the debate on how to help the homeless rages on, Esperança and the other organisations that distribute food around the city are keeping people alive.
I don't think I'm alone in finding the idea of volunteering daunting. The fear of the unknown and having to confront the reality of homelessness caused me to put volunteering on the long finger. But I finally decided to learn more about the work Esperança does firsthand and draw some of my own conclusions on the issue of homelessness.
The first step was to put my name down for the Ciutadella Park food run (there is also a Raval route). The following Sunday I met with the other volunteers at the base apartment in the Born. When we arrived, soup was cooking on the stove and deliveries were trickling in. The veterans were on hand to give us advice and put us at ease as we sorted through the clothes and picked out things that certain people on the route might appreciate. Books were put aside for an avid reader and a quirky woollen hat packed for a woman who is known for her eclectic style. The volunteers have grown to know and care about the people they meet along the way.
Many different people volunteer for Esperança. Some have been living in Barcelona for years, while others have just arrived or are only in the city for a couple of weeks. The various stories and backgrounds made for fascinating conversation during the two-hour walk.
Out on the street, there's even more diversity. The range of nationalities of the homeless was astonishing—Polish, Moroccan, Chinese—often striking up conversations in a multitude of languages. The food is important, but everyone loves a good chat too. There was no sense of charity; the volunteers are simply the middleman, aiding distribution.
I must admit, this wasn't the easiest thing I’ve ever done, and I was left with a lingering sense of sadness. One encounter with a young boy, not much older than 18, has stayed with me. He cycled up to the group at Estació Nord and made his way over to me. Staring at the ground, he quietly asked me for some shampoo and a T-shirt. He took what I had and quickly cycled off. It was a stark reminder that poverty knows no boundaries.
Food runs may not be a solution to homelessness, but they do provide dignity and humanity to those on the streets, breaking down barriers that lead to stigmatisation and social exclusion.
This is not something I plan on doing every weekend—it’s sad and the reality is harsh. But as long as each volunteer does their bit, Esperança will continue to make a difference. So if like me you’re humming and hawing, remember that the food and social interaction that make up this initiative are invaluable. If you feel nervous about going out on the street, you can also help by donating items, preparing food, or by being a pick-up or drop-off point (if you live near the routes).
All you need to do to get involved is sign up on their Facebook page.