British and homeless in Barcelona
“You’re from Scotland, aren’t you?”
It’s just after ten on a chilly Saturday night in March, I’m rummaging in the depths of a pull-along shopping cart in the hunt for a vegetarian-friendly sandwich to hand to the homeless man sitting on a park bench, and a headscarf-clad fellow volunteer from Iran is insistently shoogling my arm.
I look up and she motions towards a bearded guy clutching a trembling little terrier, both clearly exhausted but fighting the impulse to sleep as the group of volunteers swarms around. I introduce myself to this compatriot who’s been singled out to speak to me solely on the basis of his British accent.
Flanked on each side by a murderer and an HIV-positive drug addict, Luke* is in his early 30s, wearing tatty-looking trainers, an inadequate-looking anorak and a ruched grey snood, which his dog is trying to retreat into. I shake his hand in shock, taken aback to find someone from my own country – intelligent, funny, articulate – who’s ended up homeless in Barcelona. He’s been in the city for five years (like me), has a small dog (like me) and lost his job here (like me, though I was lucky enough to have lined up another one in the meantime). We talk for a few minutes before I have to move on with the group to the next stop on the volunteer route.
The echoes of our respective experiences resonate with me for days, and since Luke still has a mobile phone (albeit one that’s rarely charged), we arrange to meet up for a hot meal and a long conversation a few days later.
This is his story.
“I was always sympathetic to homeless people, while secretly secure in the assumption I could never possibly find myself in that situation.” – Luke, British, and homeless in Barcelona
How did things get so bad that you’ve ended up living on the streets?
I’ve been in Barcelona over five years, and have worked for major companies here, earning good money. I suppose I was pretty complacent that as a native English speaker I’d always be able to land something if I ever lost my job. My contract came to an end at the start of 2015 and at first I wasn’t too worried – I did the usual rounds of recuitment agencies, job sites, and putting the word out among my contacts, but there was nothing doing at all. I couldn’t even get an interview. After a few months I was starting to get really concerned. I had a good stash of savings set aside so was paying the rent on my 1-bedroom flat as normal, and trying to live leanly in the meantime.
Things went on like this for nine months, and I still hadn’t told any of my friends or family the real story. I suppose I was just too embarrassed to admit what was going on. I’ve always been independent, since I was a teenager, able to support myself, and I couldn’t believe the prospect of losing my home could actually happen. I used to lie in bed at night, hugging my dog, thinking how we only had a few weeks left to live in the flat now that my savings had dwindled to zero.
When the crunch came, I packed up my furniture and belongings into boxes, arranged for them to be stored in a friend’s basement (telling him I was just between flats at the moment), and gave my landlord notice. He was very sympathetic but there wasn’t a lot he could do – he needed to let the flat out to the next person.
The first day you had to move out of your flat, how did you decide where to go and sleep?
I didn’t have a clue what to do. I was in a daze, wandering around till five in the morning with a small bag of my stuff and my dog, who ended up falling asleep in my arms as I walked. I just kept walking for hours, in the dark. I was exhausted but had no idea where was safe to lie down and sleep. I didn’t have a blanket or anything.
In the end I went into the foyer of a bank ATM, and curled up there in the corner, facing away from any passers-by outside. The lights in those places are really bright, though, and the floor is rock hard, so I barely slept. I guess I must have been in a state of shock.
What happened after that first day and night?
For the first couple of weeks I snatched sleep at weird times of the day, sitting on a bench in a park or in a doorway. Looking back now, I don’t remember clearly how I survived. I remember being absolutely starving, and passing out sometimes with the tiredness.
What worried me most was my dog. I seemed to spend every moment thinking about how I was going to feed her.
I began to notice as well the difference in how people perceived me. I was convinced I must smell and look horrendous. One day as I was walking with my dog I got chatting to a local woman, who was out walking with her own dog. It was just a normal social interaction. The next morning she passed me in the park as I was getting dressed. She looked aghast, and gave me a wide berth. I’ve seen her a few times since and she’s never talked to me again. I wasn’t used to being judged and dismissed like this, just on appearances. Accepting this was really hard for me.
After about a week I staggered into a park in Poble Sec, near where I used to have my flat, and just said to the group of people sitting there “I think I’m homeless, and I don’t know what to do”. They looked at me and the dog, and said “you can sleep with us”, and within 10 minutes they’d whipped up a sleeping bag and were offering to watch my dog so I could get some sleep.
What do you do for food and water?
We get water from the drinking fountains in the parks. The authorities have been turning off the water supply recently, I suppose to discourage people from sleeping there. So we have to plan ahead, and go fill up our plastic bottles the night before to cart back to our spot.
Sometimes I do get really hungry. You only qualify for the soup kitchens if you’re over 40, so I’m not allowed to go there for food. Some other homeless people I know will sneak me stuff out from time to time. I mostly rely on the volunteer groups coming round to dole out sandwiches, tangerines, cartons of juice. They only appear at the weekends, though, so I’ll hoard the tuna or cheese sandwich to have something to nibble on over the next couple of days.
You can go weeks without seeing any fresh vegetables. It’s not uncommon for us to sit in the park having an hour-long conversation about how much we miss broccoli.
There’s one set of volunteers who come now and again with Tupperwares full of rice and chicken, and even plastic cutlery. Those are special moments. For a minute you feel a bit more normal, remembering the routine of food and the social aspect of it.
What about begging and dumpster-diving, do you ever resort to those?
I’ve never begged myself, but I know a few people who do. They’ll go wait outside the churches on Sundays. Not everyone is savvy enough to go dumspter-diving, believe it or not – the alcoholics and drug addicts don’t go in for it much. I go sometimes with another guy to salvage food from the Lidl bins, and we turn up the odd chilled pizza, cold meat or yoghurt.
How do you manage to feed your dog?
Moroccan guys living on the streets normally won’t eat pork, so they slip me the meat out of the volunteers’ sandwiches for my dog. I’m always really grateful to the volunteers who bring dog food round. It’s touching that someone’s thought of that specifically.
Where do homeless people in Barcelona tend to sleep?
There are quite a few makeshift camps scattered around Montjuïc and Tibidabo, though the Montjuïc ones get raided by police a lot. But mostly the homeless congregate in small groups in the city parks, kids’ play areas, where we can sleep out of sight. You tend to only find single homeless people or couples sleeping in doorways or bank ATM entrances. Most folk want the security of a group. I guess we’re social creatures at heart, it’s natural to want to seek out mutual protection.
The other advantage of attaching yourself to a small group is that you’re able to trade. Most homeless people are alcoholics and smokers, so fags and beer are the standard currency. It doesn’t always have to be physical items, though – I sometimes look after other homeless people’s dogs for a few hours in exchange for them bringing me back food they sneak out of the soup kitchen they attend.
Have you ever been robbed or attacked while sleeping rough?
The very first week I started sleeping on the streets, I had my bag of personal papers nicked while I was sleeping. It had all my official stuff – my UK passport, Spanish NIE certificate, my dog’s registration papers. If you’re alone, like I was for the first week, you’re vulnerable, and the worst time is when you have no choice but to fall asleep. I’m always especially worried that someone will harm my dog, so I sleep with her leash wrapped round my body, though even then someone could harm or steal her if they wanted to.
What’s your daily routine like on the streets?
It’s a long day. You wake up really early, around six, with the daylight and noise from the street, and the dog pawing at your face. It sounds mundane, but what I really miss first thing in the morning is coffee. I used to down three or four cups in my old life, and I’ve never got used to not having the caffeine kick first thing.
Even if the daylight didn’t wake you early, you’d need to be up anyway – the park cleaners and police come at 8am, sometimes half seven, three mornings a week, and they’re hell-bent on seizing and destroying your blankets, bags, any belongings you have. You need to be up and ready to defend your stuff.
Throughout the day there isn’t much to do apart from sit around and talk. Bear in mind that most people living in parks are drunk, high, or have mental health issues, so having conversations with them can be bloody hard work. I sometimes go for long walks with the dog just to kill time, get some exercise and most of all to get away from endless conversations about methadone.
The other thing is, the more time you spend sitting in a park surrounded by drink and drug addicts, the more likely you are to surrender to the temptation to join them in getting wasted. It’s hard to sit there as the one sober person in a group and not lose your mind in the process.
We go to sleep early as well, usually around 8 or 9pm, because of the boredom. Sleep is a way to escape the tedium. The monotony is why so many fights start among homeless people – that, and the fact that many of them are out of it. Tiny, trivial things get blown out of all proportion, till they escalate into full-on warfare. People hold grudges on the street for a long time.
I see a lot of homeless people here with dogs. What’s it like trying to look after a dog on the street?
There’s pros and cons to it. At first, till I got into a routine in the park, having the dog made it much harder to sleep. She’s young and lively, and there were times I’d be sitting on a bench throwing the ball for her incessantly, like a robot, just desperate for her to conk out so I could get some sleep.
The problem is, the social services help that’s available to homeless people in Barcelona only kicks in if you’re over 40 and don’t have a dog. I’ve been advised several times by the authorities and homeless foundations to get rid of her. I know that might make sense objectively, but I’ve lost my job, my home, all my belongings…my dog is the only thing I have left, and I’m not willing to give her up.
At night it can be useful, having the dog around. There comes a point you’re so exhausted you’ll sleep through anything, and I do like the comfort of having her there, alerting me if there’s any danger.
I have to admit as well that I suspect the dog gives me a motive to stay sober. There’s been plenty of times the guys around me have drink, tranquilizers, or much stronger stuff, and I always say no, because I feel I have to stay compos mentis to protect us both. She’s relying on me.
What about basic hygiene needs?
The longest I’ve ever gone without a shower is nine days. It’s vile. Your hair is greasy, your beard stinks, you’ve been sitting in the same underwear for days, and even though you swab yourself down with baby wipes from volunteers, you never feel properly clean.
If you’re registered with the authorities you can get showers at the Raval centre, but since I’m under 40 I don’t qualify. They give people like me an address of facilities miles away, but you have to start queueing there from six in the morning, sometimes all day just to get a wash. I have no money to get public transport there and it’s too far to walk, especially in the heat of the summer.
When it comes to going to the toilet, we pretty much rely on the coffee shop around the corner from the park. If it’s the guy on shift that day he’ll normally turn a blind eye, but his wife shoos me out the shop when I walk in.
You try to hold it in, most of the time, and end up feeling really uncomfortable. A lot of the time we have to resort to relieving ourselves behind some bushes in the park. Volunteers sometimes come round handing out toilet roll. These are the types of basic, logistical things you have to think about, that before you’d just take for granted.
How about when you get sick, how do you cope?
I haven’t been to the doctor since I started living on the streets. I suppose if I got seriously ill the hospitals would have to treat me, but I don’t have the cash to pay for the prescription. So far, touch wood, I haven’t come down with anything major. I do worry about that, though, and what would happen if I got toothache, that sort of thing.
Are there any families or children living on Barcelona’s streets?
No, not that I’ve ever seen. I’ve been in Barcelona since 2011, at the height of the crisis, so I’m aware of the desahuciados phenomenon, where whole families lose their homes when they can’t keep up the mortgage payments. I guess these people must be taken in by Spanish relatives, though, as I’ve never seen them in the parks and homeless haunts I know around the city.
I get the impression there are more men than women living on the streets. Is that right?
Yeah, I would say so. I suppose women are more likely to be taken in by their families – who would want their daughter or sister sleeping in a park? Men tend to ask for help less, as well. At least in my case.
I’ll never forget my very first night on the street, after I’d handed the flat keys back to my landlord and was just wandering around in tears with my dog in a satchel. It felt like I had reached rock bottom.
Has there been a high point?
One night some local people brought round loaves of fresh bread, hot dogs and ketchup. One of the guys in the park took the hot dogs to be microwaved in a nearby café and a group of us stayed up till 11pm, gorging ourselves and having a laugh. It was just a couple of hours of camaraderie, where we could forget our circumstances and actually have fun for once. We still talk about that night to this day.
How do the police treat the homeless in Barcelona?
Witnessing the behaviour of some of the police in Barcelona has been a huge wake-up call to me, and one of the things that’s really made me see how far I’ve fallen.
At the beginning, sleeping in the park, I was very respectful of the police who would come round. It’s how I was brouught up – you should respect the police, because they’re there to protect you. But after only a couple of weeks, I started to get angry.
I’ve seen policemen piss on a homeless guy’s face and kick the back of the head of another homeless guy to wake him up. The police aren’t meant to take your blankets, but often they do, so you always have to be there to defend your belongings. Mostly they come at set times, so you can be ready, but recently they’ve started doing surprise visits, ordering us out of the park and making us leave the shelter of the rocks there to go stand out in the pouring rain in the street.
They’re public servants, there to protect the public, and what enfuriates me is that if I was there dressed in a suit, looking British, their reaction would be deferential. As a homeless guy sleeping in a park, though, I’m treated like I’m worthless.
From conversations I’ve had here – with taxi drivers, shop-keepers, neighbours – many people in Barcelona seem to think that homeless people are themselves to blame for their predicament. From what you’ve experienced, are they right?
A lot of people are on the street because they’re making or have made bad decisions. Most are men, aged between 40 and 50, who are alcoholics, drug addicts, some have been in and out of jail. It’s true to say that most of them are not actively looking for work or hopeful that they’ll find a way out of their situation. A lot of them are totally stuck in their circumstances, and it’s hard to envisage any employer ever giving them a chance.
But no-one ends up on the street because life has been kind.
I think for ‘normal’ people, who have their own homes, we must loom up like a terrifying mirror of what could possibly happen to them. It’s easy to dismiss the homeless as drunks, junkies, neer-do-wells – but the fact is that given the right (or the wrong) circumstances, that could be you. I never, ever honestly thought I could end up here. I’m still struggling to accept the fact that it’s happened.
It’s a sad fact that many homeless people who receive help, like back-to-work placements, food bank vouchers and temporary accommodation, ultimately end up back on the streets. What’s the appeal, do you think?
When you’ve reached the point that you’re homeless, living hand-to-mouth on the streets, it can’t actually get worse. There’s something strangely comforting about the lack of responsibility and not having to live up to anyone’s expectations. No-one around you can afford any airs and graces. It’s the best leveller there is.
I have to admit there is an addictive quality to living like this. I know people who used to be on the streets and have been given a flat and a job by social services, but less than a month later they’re back in the park. In a way, the visible part of the problem – the lack of accommodation – is just the tip of the iceberg. The deeper reason many folk end up on the streets is because they have mental health problems, and that’s the part that society is scared to address. And I suppose the part that’s much harder to fund.
What can people do to help the homeless in Barcelona? If we see a homeless person begging or they approach us for money, should we hand over cash?
Honestly, I would say no. One of the hardest parts about this for me has been suddenly feeling like I’m invisible, that I just don’t count anymore, and those moments when someone walks past, sees me and acknowledges me make my day. It’s much better to stop and chat to the person sleeping on the streets, and if you want to help out, offer to take them for a coffee and a sandwich, just spend half an hour with them.
Remember that every person you see sleeping rough is an individual with a unique back story. We don’t stop having identities and personalities just because we’ve lost the roof over our heads.
How to help the homeless in Barcelona – volunteering and donations
Trying to get clear figures on how many people are on the streets in Barcelona isn’t easy. Earlier this year, El País reported that several local councils in Catalonia are planning to carry out a census of homeless people to obtain an accurate picture of the problem – without this information, a serious public policy against homelessness is impossible. Frustratingly, it’s not the Catalan parliament, the Generalitat, behind this push, but non-profit organisation the Arrels Foundation. The charity has seen the number of people needing its help skyrocket since 2011, and the article quotes its director as seeming to imply that the Catalan government is avoiding finding out the real figure for fear of then having to face up to the real problem.
The Arrels Foundation quotes a figure of 3000 homeless people in the city, with around 900 sleeping on the streets each night. The organisation’s main aim is to raise awareness among the public about the plight of the homeless in Barcelona, around a third of whom hail from EU countries other than Spain. Arrels welcomes enquiries from potential volunteers, who can help by joining the street outreach teams, assisting in the day centre or visiting people who have been recently rehoused as they try to integrate back into society. You can also make a donation to help fund the organisation’s work, 60% of which is privately funded.
Hope for the homeless
Esperança (Catalan for ‘hope’) is a volunteer group set up in 2013 by Brits Julie Stephenson and Julia Fossi. On Saturday and Sunday evenings, volunteers from the group gather donations of food, clothes, shoes and toiletries to distribute to homeless people on two established routes across Barcelona. You can offer to make up food (sandwiches, soup and fruit are the usual fare), take along dog food or volunteer as a walker on one of the routes, accompanied by three or four other people. Walking one of the routes takes around four hours, and is a great way to interact with homeless people in a directly meaningful way, as well as make friends from the international volunteer community in Barcelona.
Follow Esperança’s Facebook group for full details of how to sign up as a volunteer.
*Name changed to protect identity