Homeless in Argentina


Poverty and Inequality in Argentina


I was having coffee at one of the finest coffeehouses in Buenos Aires when a homeless woman approached me. She was very old, thin and dressed in rags. Her face seemed to have missed a splash of water for so long but she stood high. Her smile shifted the focus to her chapped pale lips and the few stained teeth she had left.

As she started speaking in Spanish, I poorly explained that I didn’t understand. Surprisingly, she switched to perfect English and apologized for interrupting. With extreme politeness she mentioned how she usually sleeps in this spot but since it’d be a holiday the next day, the coffee shop is open for a late hour and she’s past her street-bed time. She didn’t ask for anything but thought standing there would make the place close faster. Intrigued, I asked how she avoided the rain and she said that she slept in the subway whenever the weather is bad, as it’s the only warm place around.

In a matter of ten days in Buenos Aires, I saw more than 200 homeless persons scattered here and there, in parks, behind huge dumpsters, at the backsides of a once-grand building, in front of closed stores, literally any and everywhere on the back of something. As miserable as it sounds, the sight of the homeless in Buenos Aires seems to be part of the design of the city.

Pedestrians walk by the homeless as if their existence was some kind of a decorative detail, one that is invisible to the naked eye.  Most of the times, Argentinians would warn you from the homeless describing them as “the Cartonero plague that swept the country”, who would probably rob you if you’re not careful enough, as if thieves are necessarily dressed in rags!

Attitudes vary, some choose not to notice the homeless for their sight inconveniences them, some don’t notice them anyway, some genuinely believe poverty is the fault of the poor and some try to solve the problem on a systematic level.

While official figures state that 1500 persons are living in the streets of Buenos Aires, reality says something else, as the densely populated capital shelters thousands of homeless persons. And before you argue against the observation, take a walk and see for yourself. Homeless shelters do exist of course, but they are poorly funded and lack the capacity to accommodate the increasing number of homeless persons.

Now why are there homeless persons in the first place? Local NGOs and activists suggest unemployment and poverty in addition to drug and drinking problems and cutting ties with their own families.  The UCA Argentine Catholic University released the Poverty and Inequality in Urban Argentina Report to state that 2.7 million persons suffer from hunger whereas impoverishment covers 13 million of the population. It further states that attempts to fix the situation were faced by waves of unemployment that made it worse.

Homeless people are everywhere. Someone suggested that you have to fix the system first. “You pass by a river, find one person drowning; you jump and save his life. As you plan to leave you see another one drowning and save him too. You look behind to see ten more, you look up to see one man throwing them in the river one by one. You decide to stop and leave.” On opposite sides, people tend to shift the blame onto the system, the present or the former government and so on. In doing so, the discussion ends and everyone looks the other way.

Say the system is the problem, what about your individual social responsibility? What if the system is not fixed in your lifetime? How is it that you have tried to make a difference? It is a complicated issue that’s a fact; then again, if you try to do something about your “here and now” you may well change the gloomy scene.

A curious employee once asked his boss why the latter always picked green to sign off his documents. The boss opened up and told him his story. Back in the day he supervised laborers on a construction site; under his watch one laborer had an accident and passed away. He signed his accident report with a green pen and ever since he used the color to remind himself of his responsibility. The employee, who happened to be a life coach, explained how guilt is a burden that helped nobody and directed him to take action, acknowledging it was an accident and supporting the family of the deceased instead. After sometime, it changed the life of the boss and that of the family mentioned. He still used a green pen but this time to signify that he could do more than dwell in remorse.  If it wasn’t for that initial conversation, none of that would have happened.

Have a conversation with a homeless person; it’d take 5 minutes of your precious time and cost you nothing. You might change the way he/she sees things, know someone who could hire him/her for a temporary job or offer a bite of your large- portion meal Argentinian restaurants tend to serve.

Looking the other way from a problem is like looking the other way from a job or study assignment. No miracle will do it on your behalf.

What is it you will do?