“When you end up on the street, you soon realise that the homelessness support services in Barcelona have many shortcomings”

Bob Walker i Gemma Gassó, educadors de carrer d'Arrels

Gemma Gassó and Bob Walker are two of the Arrels’ outreach team case workers. They go around Barcelona visiting the people who have lived on the streets for a long time and try to earn their trust, an essential step to improve their situation and to offer them helpful places they can go to. They meet people who have been sleeping outsid for twenty years. Facing such extreme cases, when they are asked what should be done, theygive a fast and united answer: visit them and give them visibility.

Gemma Gassó and Bob Walker have contributed their perspective and experiences to the report Living on the streets in Barcelona: analysis of a homeless city that you can read here.

According to census data, there has been an increase of people stating that they have been attacked, both physically and verbally. Have you noticed this?
G.G. Unfortunately, we’re really used to hearing from the people who we are visiting that they have been attacked. It’s part of the reality that they tell us about. Being on the streets and the threat of violence are certainly linked. They go hand in hand.
B.W. Yes, we’re really aware of this fact. They tell you ‘they hit me last night’, ‘they tried to steal my bag’… And there isn’t a specific target. Women, men, older men… All, or at least most, of them have been attacked.

Can we say that, in some way, they normalise these situations?
G.G. Of course. There’s this defencelessness or internalisation… They have no defence mechanism; there’s no trust in justice, in being able to  report a crime. Some do report these things, but the most defenceless people, for those that have been on the streets for longer, I feel like they have internalised the attacks and hatred.
B.W. There’s a lot of violence on the streets. If you live on the streets, whether to a greater or lesser extent, violence is part of your life. Being sweared at is so normalied that they don’t even think of mentioning it. It’s been a long time since someone told me ‘they swore at me’, although it’s really common.

Attacks and health conditions, the main risks

Aside from attacks, what do you think are the main risks of living on the street?
G.G. The damage to your health. I believe it goes hand in hand. The most basic things get pushed into the background, your main concern is surviving. Things such as taking care of your health or getting regular check-ups, fade into the background.
B.W. Health in every sense of the word: physical, mental… depression, for example. Lots of them see no future, no hope. The other day we were talking to someone who had a splitting headache for days; any of us would have gone to A&E. But this person said: ‘No, well, I’m on the street’.

One of the most highlighted data from the census shows that, after being on the streets for six months, the vulnerability index soars. How does this worsening happen and how does it affect one’s self-esteem?
B.W. Your self-esteem, your health… The longer you live on the street, the harder it is to get off it. You have no job, no stable housing, no self-esteem, no self-confidence…
G.G. … it’s like you feel more and more like an outcast. It really is a social ‘exclusion’. As time goes on you feel less and less part of society. You reject more support services and people. Your mindset becomes ‘I only go to Arrels to take a shower’.

Usually in a six month time period there aren’t a lot of changes, but spending them on the streets can be life changing…
G.G. When you end up on the street, you soon realise that the homelessness support services in Barcelona have many shortcomings. You might have to wait four months to be allocated a night shelter, that is if you’re lucky and are able to get there by your own means. Straight away you see that living there is very challenging with the services they give you: you have to go there to get a shower, you have to go to this other place to get food… Services are very fragmented. There’s nothing that says ‘you’ve been here for a short period but soon you’ll get your life back’, it’s more of an ‘okay, you’ve just joined Barcelona’s homeless support services network. Welcome and we’ll see when you get out’. Getting out of there isn’t easy.
B.W. You go through two phases. The first few months you may still have the will power, you don’t truly know this network, and you try to get out of it, but it sure isn’t easy finding a room to rent, proper housing, maybe you don’t receive any pay, or maybe you do… Afterwards, in six months time, you don’t see it as a temporary situation, you just become resigned to it.

Around a 10% of homeless people have been living on the streets for more than ten years. How do you give them back their self-esteem, or what can you do to get them out of harm’s way?
B.W. In my opinion, you should give them love. If they’ve been there for ten years, they’ve already spoken to everyone in the social services network. They’ve been through thick and thin and they live on the streets. They let themselves go completely. It’s like a switch, the switch just flips and, who knows why, they feel like ‘that’s it, there’s no hope’.
G.G. And they abandon that tiny network the city has to offer and they don’t use it anymore.
B.W. Exactly. And what can we do? We need to approach them as an individual… We’re here, you’re your own person, and we love you, we came to say hello.
G.G. It’s all about making them aware that you are there with them.
B.W. The first six months are obviously all about prevention. What’s key is not to lose their documentation, miss doctor appointments… But they usually don’t have any documentation. We sometimes ask them about things we find important, and for them, they evidently aren’t. Their health or documentation isn’t important to them.

Did you notice whether the most chronic cases are from our own country or from overseas? The census shows the former consists of double the cases.
G.G. We take care of quite a few first priority cases from Spain but, clearly, other cases aren’t that urgent. There’s a study that says that it feels like cases of Spanish people are easier because they have the Spanish ID or access to healthcare services, so why are they in a worse state? The study states that foreigners may be homeless,  but it usually is a result of the migration process. They may be on the streets for some time, but they have the clear goal of making an effort to get a job or to do whatever they need. However, if you end up on the streets –even though this is your home country, and thus you do have a social and familiar network and you have the documentation to get more help– once you fall into this situation, you fall harder and that’s when you have a hard time getting off it.

Having basic documentation is also a way to improve this situation?
B.W. It is. There may be two kinds of cases. Some may have a healthcare card and a registration of residency because they’ve been on the street for a short while. Others lose all documentation, they become more vulnerable and start the procedures for getting them because of associations such as ours. Lots of people don’t care about having documentation, and they wouldn’t go through the procedures if it wasn’t for us.
G.G. But that’s a huge first step, the fact that they don’t refrain from telling us their name, surname, any number needed to start procedures.

Are you aware of other situations outside of Barcelona? Are there other cities with success stories?
B.W. A noteworthy project would be ‘No second night out’, from London. They work on prevention. They have great detection and outreach teams and they’ve got citizens reporting cases. They claim ‘there’s this person in this place’. They’ve got accommodation for people to go to so they don’t spend a second night out and they’ve got a work plan to help those people not end up on the street again.

There’s another project, in Newcastle city, that also works on prevention. What they do, through the city council, is to detect which families and people are having problems to pay rent or their mortgage. Most usually, rented apartments. They go talk to the families straight away. Personally. They tell them that they are eligible for getting certain help that they didn’t know about. It’s amazing how successful it is. There was the case of a single mother with five children and a huge disability who didn’t know what government aid she could get. She obtained 27,000 pounds per year. That’s the key. Without that they would have thrown them out and there would be a mother with five children on the street.

Nowadays there are more than a 60% of people with a medium vulnerability level. Should we focus more on them so that it won’t reach chronic levels? What could we do?
G.G. I wish there was more prevention but there’s a lack of support for people with a medium vulnerability level. It would be ideal for people in this situation to be taken care of. There is a worrying number of cases that should be worked on. Arrels looks after those who are in the worst of situations, people that don’t even reach the support services and are in a critical situation.

What do they usually ask for?
B.W. A magazine… There’s this one man who always asks for a magazine. And that’s it. He had skin sores, full of blood and flies. When getting asked ‘are you okay’, he tells you ‘I feel fantastic. Can I get a magazine?’. This is a great example of what I mean when I talk about a top priority and invisible profile. The other day it was raining terribly and he was out in the open. We approached and asked him: ‘Are you okay? You’re dripping’. ‘Oh, this is nothing’. This is to show his continuous lack of self-care. He’s been on the streets for about 20 years.
G.G. People with a medium vulnerability level sometimes do ask for an apartment, and they ask us to help them look for a room. Sometimes they also ask us to help them find a job or get a metro card because the support services are far apart from one another.
B.W. I think sometimes people don’t take into account how hard it is for them to start pushing forward. They are really worn down, they have been on the streets for four or five years, they ask for help but this help can’t be given to them. There’s a huge void in the system.
G.G. I think that everything is like this because this matter isn’t a top priority on the agenda and it isn’t a concern. A very common example is Finland, where it is a top priority and the number of people living on the streets has decreased sharply.

What do they feel the rest of society thinks of them?
G.G. I’ll give you an example. The people who slept on Passeig Picasso easily agreed that they couldn’t sleep under the porches. They said: ‘We do understand, we don’t make a positive impact. Lots of kids and schools pass by here and we don’t make a positive impact’.
B.W. It’s really upsetting.
G.G. ‘We don’t belong here so I understand why they throw me out’.
B.W. Yes, they just accept this kind of…
G.G. … this kind of non-civic decree established in Barcelona.
B.W. Exactly, a rights violation. Like they are saying ‘well, that’s it, it’s normal’.
G.G. ‘It’s normal for them to tell me that I have to keep sitting down and can’t lay down until 11 p.m.’ Said a 70-year-old man, in a high vulnerability level situation, he himself believes that he’s nobody.

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