Photo by Rafa Royes Lopez
Over 80 percent of Spain's homeless are men
Stroll past the beach-front restaurants and bars of Barceloneta, and the port on any given evening and the tables are awash with the well-heeled and tanned soaking up the sun and serenity. Life in Barcelona is good—so long as you have money.
For those at the other end of the scale, Barcelona’s tireless economic boom is nothing to cheer about. The wave of tourists and economic surge only tightens the grip on their already meagre purse strings.
Across Catalunya, 17 percent of the population lives in poverty, a definition applied to those forced to survive on an income of €600 a month or less. Barcelona fares little better. Approximately 12 percent of the population is worse off still, scraping by on less than €375 per month, according to Ajuntament statistics. A majority of this group is made up of elderly and single women, single mothers and those made unemployed late in life.
With prices seemingly increasing on a daily basis it is little wonder that many of this number fail to cope altogether, eventually finding themselves ‘down and out in Barcelona’. While exact figures are hard to come by, it is estimated that some 2,000 people here are sense sostre (homeless).
“When I first moved here things were so much cheaper,” said Georgina Hoby who moved to Barcelona from London four years ago. “Even in this short time things have changed. Everything costs so much more. You can still find cheap places to eat and drink, but it is much harder now.”
Barcelona’s long-lasting property price boom has also taken its toll. For those at the bottom of the economic pile, finding a room, let alone a flat, is increasingly difficult. Recent statistics from the Ajuntament would appear to confirm this. Between 2001 and 2005 (the latest statistics available), the average sale price of dwellings in Barcelona increased by 80 percent (115 percent for new dwellings) while the minimum wage during this time rose by a mere 30 percent. Even for those with the luxury of a regular salary, such price increases can make it tough to reach the end of the month with any money.
Spain’s social welfare system also contributes to the problem. Though ostensibly generous to those with a history of employment, for those outside of official channels the situation is far less rosy. Once the maximum period of social welfare payments has been exhausted, a period which currently stands at a maximum of 24 months for those who have worked for six years or more, the final step is emergency relief. This equates to a level of just 75 percent of the minimum wage, currently set in Spain at just €570.60 per month.
For those who slip through gaps in the official channels, there are a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and other charitable agencies, which work to provide emergency assistance to those most in need. One such agency is Arrels, an NGO formed in 1987, which provides assistance to homeless people in Barcelona, as well as promoting actions towards the improvement and the prevention of poverty and situations of social exclusion.
The centre, which receives funding through both official and private channels, operates a number of programmes aimed at helping the long-term homeless onto the long road back to social integration. Arrel’s Street Programme involves making contact with people who are living on the street permanently and who appear to be in a severe situation of social exclusion and isolation. A team of 15 people scours the streets and initiates a process of contact with the goal of encouraging people to voluntarily come to the centre.
“I had been a fisherman all my life” said Gabriel, who was contacted and helped by the Street Programme. “When I left the boat I didn’t have a home because I had always lived at sea. I found myself homeless and broke. I ended up begging in a church and sleeping in the street.”
María Pulmes, communications director of Arrels, stressed that the organisation does not force people to accept its support and that the initial goal of the Street Programme is to make contact, assess the individual’s personal situation and requirements and hopefully encourage them to voluntarily come to the centre.
“Our focus is on helping the long-term homeless,” said Pulmes whose clients have typically spent between five and 15 years sleeping rough. “Many of the people we encounter are suffering from serious problems such as mental illness, poor physical health or alcohol related problems. The first step for us is to make contact, form a relationship and then see what we can do to help.”
Arrels also runs a day centre, ‘El Centro Abierto’, providing facilities to assist with the basic needs of individuals ranging from showers and washing machines to providing second-hand clothing and skills training. Workshops are run at the centre in activities as wide ranging as painting, computer skills and arts and crafts produced for sale in markets, the proceeds going towards the continuation of the centre.
Beyond assisting the homeless, Arrels also tries to educate the wider community and demystify the plight of the city’s homeless. To this end, Arrels holds social awareness seminars which focus on the problems of poverty into society and endeavour to bring the situation to the fore of the collective consciousness and the mass media. Such seminars are also a useful recruitment ground for the many volunteers who make the centre’s work possible.
Accommodation is clearly one of the most pressing needs facing Arrels’ clients and provides the foundation for further development and social reintegration. “Many of the people who come to us are living on less than the minimum wage,” said Pulmes, adding that the recent surge in property prices has made finding affordable housing, even in traditional neighbourhoods such as El Raval and Poble Sec, increasingly difficult. “This leaves them with a choice. They can either have a room or eat.”
The initial step, therefore, is placing a roof over a client’s head, which initially takes the form of a pensió. Once they are settled, however, Arrels endeavours to move people into one of the eight privately-owned flats within which 20 former participants of the Street Programme currently live. The objective of this transition is to not only provide a more permanent and stable form of accommodation but also to provide vital social contact with people of similar experiences. Such a move also increases the level of personal responsibility required of the individual, particularly in domestic areas such as shopping, cleaning and cooking, small but essential steps on the path back to social integration.
For Miguel Ereña, a resident of Pisos Arrels, the support has been life changing. “One of the things I love is the power to do what I did tonight. I got up, opened the fridge and ate a little ham with pan con tomate and a banana. That’s luxury!”
First published in October 2007