Jaume Mengual has spent, in different stages, more than 13 years living on the street. In the 1990s he spent eight years sleeping on the Barceloneta promenade because he couldn’t find a job that would allow him to pay the rent. During that time he painted floors and worked as a bricklayer, which allowed him to meet a man who let him live in a house that he had inherited in exchange for renovating the kitchen and keeping it in good condition.
Ending the scourge of homeless people would cost 120 million annually
It seemed, with this treatment, that Mengual’s situation of homelessness was coming to an end. He even took a woman and his child to live with him. But that relationship became conflictive and, at its end, this Barcelonan decided to leave home. With no other alternative in sight, he had no choice but to return to the streets. Seventeen years later and for the second time in his life. This time, the journey lasted five years and his bed was a car park in the Raval.
“The street is very fucked up. Even if you have friends or colleagues, you are alone,” says Mengual. Today he remembers the years he spent sleeping outdoors and those uncertain nights in which he “can go through anything.” “Many people mess with you or with other colleagues, simply for not having a home. It’s very, very hard.”
Now Mengual has a roof to sleep under thanks to the help of the Barcelona Social Services, which got him a small flat just before the confinement was decreed. “If I had been hooked by COVID-19 without a house, I don’t know what would have happened to me. If it is already difficult to get off the street, imagine yourself in the middle of a pandemic.”
This recently turned 63-year-old man believes he dodged a bullet. And it is not for less, because the pandemic condemned many people to the streets. “When the pandemic arrived, many special resources were put in place, but they only served to curb homelessness for a while. When these resources ran out, the numbers grew,” says Marta Maynou, head of the shelter program at Arrels, a Barcelona-based organization that helps the homeless.
Arrels has just published the figures of its annual count, which show that, in just one year, the number of people sleeping rough in Barcelona has increased by almost two hundred, reaching pre-pandemic figures. Another noteworthy fact: 52% of homeless people in Barcelona have been homeless for between six months and two years. “These are cases caused by the pandemic,” summarizes Maynou.
One of the effects of COVID-19 is that it has become much more difficult to get help from Social Services, Arrels warns, which in turn makes it much more difficult to get off the street. “Homelessness has become chronic,” summarizes Maynou. This is demonstrated by the figures collected in 2020, when the average time a homeless person spent rose to 5 and a half years, a figure that had never been recorded. The data for 2022 has decreased, but Arrels continues to worry as it stands at 4 years and 4 months.
This average grows if you look at Spanish or European people, reaching almost six years. On the other hand, it is substantially lower if we talk about non-EU migrants: less than three years. “There is no single explanation for this. But one of the reasons is that the non-EU responds to a profile of economic migrant, younger, with more possibilities of finding work or, even, of migrating again if the situation here is not favourable”, summarizes Maynou.
Alone against the heat, aggression and bureaucracy
“On the street everything is bad and the more time you spend there, the more difficult it is to get out. Everything becomes more uphill for you”, acknowledges Mengual. The two times he was on the street he tried to earn a living and had jobs, but even then he was not able to get a flat. “All of this affects you and you sink deeper and deeper,” recalls this man, who has been a welder since he was 14 years old, but who worked whatever came his way, although he did not lack the desire to “throw it all away”.
“Any small pothole in the street becomes an abyss,” Mengual exemplifies. Basic things like showering or finding a place to sleep take hours of management. “Everything is more complicated, even the rain,” she says. In fact, extreme weather and temperatures can complicate the well-being of homeless people, as 43% of them have health problems.
In addition to physical effects, very high temperatures such as those that are being experienced these days can also cause alterations in the safety of homeless people. “By sleeping less covered, they feel more exposed to sight,” they say from Arrels. This is an issue that homeless people are very concerned about because, apart from loneliness and discouragement, aporophobia (hatred of poor people) is one of the biggest problems they face.
“They have insulted and attacked me, but the worst was when they tried to take my dog away from me,” says Mengual. One night, a young man wanted to take Laika, a puppy that had just been given to him by some friends who also slept on the street. “Who and why would hit someone who has no home? Who would steal from his only partner? ”, Asks Mengual, who still lives today with his dog in the apartment that the Barcelona City Council got for him.
Long stays on the street have serious effects on mental and physical health, consequences that begin to be considered “serious” after six months of homelessness. “Only half a year later, the deterioration is already very noticeable and will have very long-term effects,” says Maynou, adding that “the more time passes, the less trust the person has in a system that is not finding a solution to their situation.”
The ineffectiveness of Social Services is a widespread opinion among homeless people who, like Mengual, lament that “the poor workers do what they can, but it is the administration that does not comply.” Along these lines, Arrels believes that aid resources are “little specialized and adapted” to homelessness. “It cannot be that there are resources that are incompatible with drug addiction or that require a lot of bureaucracy, because that excludes many of the people who sleep on the street,” says Maynou.
Jaume was able to get a home in one of the apartments that the Barcelona City Council built from shipping containers. There he lives with Laika thanks to a benefit and also to the money that Arrels gives him in exchange for working in the ‘La Troballa’ workshop. It is a manufacturing space in which notebooks are bound, small furniture is built or jewelry is made, all products that are sold in the entity’s store.
“I’m very comfortable. This helps me not only for the money, but to feel better about myself, so I don’t go overboard all day. And to have a laugh with these”, says Jaume, pointing to his workshop colleagues, all of them people who have also been homeless.