Author: Gabriela Mesones Rojo
Everyone is impressed with this big blizzard. But I just feel like home.
When Mario talks about the snow, he can’t help but smile. He’s from Romania, and has been living in Madrid for the past eight years, but on the streets of Fuencarral for the past two after losing his job as a truck driver.
“It’s a hard city and a hard economy. I get no help from the state, so I have to take care of myself”, Mario explains, as he drinks a hot chicken soup given to him by the Vecinas de Lavapiés. “The government’s solutions during the snow were pretty weird: they asked us all to go metro stations, but I didn’t go. I like the cold and fear the coronavirus”.
Mario chose not to go to the metro stations, explaining that he has a sweet spot where he sleeps in the doorstep of an abandoned building: “That doorstep has been safer than any shelter during the pandemic”, but not everyone sleeping rough feels the same way.
Macram is from Tunez, and he doesn’t feel so comfortable around snow. He puts his hands over his head while talking about the state of Lavapies:
After the blizzard, most of the trees came down. It’s been a week and no one has come to take the branches or the ice off of the streets.
Macram is one of the volunteers of Vecinas de Lavapies, a grassroots organisation set up during the pandemic to help those affected by the economic impacts of the Covid-19 crisis. He started working with the group only three months ago: “Allowing myself to take time to help others was one of the best choices I’ve made during the pandemic”.
“Most homeless who come here people are migrant men,” says Mar Amado, one of the volunteers and organisers of Vecinas de Lavapiés. Around 73% of people sleeping in the streets are male; and even though migrants only account for around 14% of Madrid’s population, they make up 61% of homeless people in the capital.
Petrika is also from Romania and has been in Spain for 20 years, “I have a job now, but I lived in the streets for almost four years. It’s rough for migrants, because we have little support. Some of us don’t have family in the country, or friends. Some don’t understand the system or speak the language,” he explains with a perfect Spanish accent.
Every six days a homeless person dies in the streets as a result of violence or health issues. Public policies to prevent this are scarce, including the publication of statistics. Barcelona’s town hall published a report claiming that Madrid has 2,700 homeless people, of which 650 sleep on the street rather than in shelters. Across Spain, there are around 30,000 homeless people, and the number registered by NGO Hogar Sí state it’s in fact 33,000 people.
During Madrid’s fortnight-long deep freeze, Samur Social have given the resources to open up just 559 beds for people sleeping on the street, but any of these beds were in hostels outside of the city centre and far from where the majority of homeless people sleep. With the bad weather having made it so difficult to access these hostels, four central metro stations opened up overnight to escape freezing temperatures.
But even once they’d escaped the snow and were fortunately allowed to bring inside their belongings and pets, provisions inside the stations have been minimal and undignified, with people being allowed to simply sleep on the tiled floor. It was only thanks to volunteers in the neighbourhood who brought blankets, food, hot drinks and clean clothes, whose efforts were organised by Asociación Bokatas.
As Patricia Bezunartea, general director of Social Services and Family Diversity, explained:
“Public policies based on emergencies have proven not to solve the problem”. Currently, 74% of shelters are only oriented for a temporary stay of homeless people.
With the right-wing-led Madrid City Council continuously voting against helping the homeless, their situation has been left to community organisations.
Vecinas de Lavapiés are currently operating from the branch office of Podemos Centro and Izquierda Unida Centro, partly funded by branch members who pay from their own pockets to rent the space for events, meetings, classes and food banks.
“We try to support with food and clothing, but we are also very interested in making them feel like part of the community”, Mar explains. “We have vegetarian food for muslim people who don’t eat pork, for example – we not only care about feeding them, but about doing so with dignity. Homeless people have a right to choose what to eat”.
We also try to be as welcoming as we can. We are like family: we greet them with love. That’s our focus. Above all: dignity and love.
VECINAS DE LAVAPIÉS
Follow Vecinas de Lavapiés on Instagram. You can get in touch with them via their Instagram to volunteer, donate or collaborate. Head to the info section of this earlier article about them for details on what they need.
BeshaWear is another remarkable food bank in Lavapiés set up by African migrants during the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown.
Becha has converted part of her seamstress workshop into a food distribution point where she and her family of volunteers have been serving the people of Lavapiés twice a day since April.
This article was written by Gabriela Mesones Rojo, a Venezuelan journalist based in Madrid. She specialises in gender and migration issues with a focus on marginalised communities. You can follow her here.