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Photo by Lee Woolcock
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Photo by Lee Woolcock
Given that Barcelona is in the midst of a financial crisis and that foreclosures have increased dramatically over the past two years, an observer might expect to find rapidly rising numbers of people living in the city’s streets, but it hasn’t happened. On any given night, some 1,500 people in Barcelona are experiencing homelessness, only about five percent more than in 2008.
Of those people who were homeless here on a cool night in March 2010, when the latest count was taken, some 650 people were sleeping rough, and some 850 would sleep in one of the city’s shelter spaces. Of the 1,500 people counted that night, however, none were children. The city maintains a careful system to guarantee that families will not find themselves living in the street.
And, even the 1,500 people counted that evening represented a low number. Other, comparably-sized cities in Europe have four or five thousand people in their streets each night. “The most important reason for the low numbers here is the safety net of solidarity that people have with their extended families,” said Ricard Gomà, at the time of writing Barcelona’s second deputy mayor and director of a department in the Ajuntament called Acció Social i Ciutadania (Social Action and Citizenry), under which falls responsibility for people experiencing homelessness. “The support network from extended family in Barcelona is as close-knit as you’re likely to find anywhere, and much stronger than you’ll find in an Anglo-Saxon society.”
The city has worked hard to design alternatives for those who do not have a family on which to rely. Five years ago, four people worked full-time with those who were homeless or in danger of winding up on the streets. Today, 50 people do so. “During the past five years, we have built a network between City Hall and various entities,” said Gomà. “We have a goal of social inclusion, and to move toward it we have professionals in the streets every day, identifying homeless people in the initial phases of their problems. In Rome, with five thousand people in the streets, they don’t have socio-educational programmes, nor preventive programmes. I think this is the big difference.”
After the sun goes down, two-person teams go to various districts of Barcelona to make contact with newcomers sleeping rough and let them know what services—shelter, food and showers—are available, as well as to check on the people who live outdoors for weeks or months or years. One cold night in March this year, Valentin Hîncu, a native of Rumania, and Khalid Ghali, originally from Morocco, were walking their rounds of the Les Corts district. Both are fluent in Catalan and Castilian, as well as their native languages.
At one street corner, an old mattress is tucked away behind a rubbish bin. It belongs to an alcoholic male from Bulgaria, Hîncu said, who has been sleeping there for two years. The team has stopped by to see how he’s doing. He’s not there, so they know he is in the bar at the corner, where he spends his waking hours, but rather than try and talk with him in the bar they’ll stop by again later in the week. The next stop is the Jardins de Màlaga where a heavily bearded Catalan man named Antoni is sitting on a bench in the dark, wearing three heavy sweaters beneath a filthy gabardine. In front of him is a complicated wheeled cart, packed high with many things, out of which he pulls a vacuum cleaner body with no hose, which he had found that day. “I’ll keep it and maybe a hose will turn up,” he said. The team admires the useless vacuum cleaner, checks on his legs, which have been bothering him, and chat for a few minutes.
After a while, they move on. During the course of their eight-hour shift, the pair may walk 25 kilometres, said Ghali. “It’s not easy, but it’s a gratifying job. For instance, there’s a Portuguese guy who’s kind of paranoid; he would have nothing to do with anyone, but now he’s gotten to know us and he’ll let us take him for a shower, and he’ll go to the comedor (shelter canteen). These are small changes, but they make a big difference in a person’s life.”
In addition to the habitually homeless, the recession has created a need for emergency housing for those people who have lost their own place to live. In 2005, the city had such housing in only one of its 10 districts. By 2010, emergency housing had been opened in every district. “This is a resource for families with a high risk of losing their housing and who have no social or family support,” said Ricard Gomà. “In 2010, we have provided emergency housing to a thousand people through about 150 units. We also have a network of inclusion housing with social workers who are working toward getting these families or individuals into a normal rental situation and stable housing. We have some 300 units of social inclusion housing that serve about 1,500 people who will be in them between six months and a year.”
In 2005, an undertaking called ‘A Citizen’s Agreement for an Inclusive Barcelona’ was subscribed to by 450 social action agencies, charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which, together with the city council, created eight networks dealing with aspects of social inclusion: assistance for those living in homelessness; socially responsible businesses; job training; centres for infants and adolescents; assistance in receiving and integrating recently-arrived immigrants; foster families; accessible housing; and cultural events for social inclusion.
The first of these, homelessness, is dealt with by La Xarxa d’Atenció a Persones sense Sostre (The Network for Attention to People without a Roof), which is made up of 24 different charities and NGOs, and the Ajuntament. The Network provides both day and night services. The day services include a place to leave belongings, a meal, showers, workshops and common rooms. The night services include an evening meal and a bed. The 2010 survey counted a total of 1,108 persons using the day-time facilities, and 842 using night-time services.
In addition to providing these services, the Network has undertaken an ambitious campaign to end homelessness in Barcelona by the year 2015. This was Barcelona’s response to the European Union’s designation of 2010 as the ‘Year of the War on Poverty and Exclusion’. The slogan for Barcelona’s campaign is “Imagine a 2015 with no one living in the street”.
It will not be an easy goal to reach. “For this to happen, the citizens need to convert themselves into a pressure group on the public powers to insist that, even in times of economic crisis, social inclusion has to continue as a priority,” said Ricard Gomà.
The most critical factor in Barcelona’s formula to combat social exclusion is local government, he added. “These days, there’s no doubt that government is the main engine in public health and education. Five years ago, this wasn’t happening when dealing with social exclusion. This was the territory of charities and NGOs. We believe that in the fight against social exclusion, the principal engine has to be the public administration. Once that is established, the public administration will work with, and count on, the charities and NGOs."
HOMELESSNESS IN THE WORLD
- An estimated three million people are homeless in Europe (Source: Red de Apoyo a la Integración Sociolaboral, 2010)
- Homelessness in Greece rose from 17,000 in 2009 to 20,000 in 2010 (Source: European Observatory on Homelessness)
- It is estimated that by 2015, there could be 24.4 million homeless people in Nigeria (Source: UNHCR)
- In the US, 1.37 million of the overall homeless population are under 18 years old (Source: International Journal of Psychosocial Research, 2008)