For over 4 years I have volunteered with Solidarios para el Desarrollo (www.solidarios.org.es), a Spanish NGO that works with homeless people in Madrid. I would like to share here what it feels like to be a volunteer and some of the stories that I have found in the street.
As a volunteer, I walk every Tuesday night around a specific area of Madrid with other volunteers. We walk for a 2-3 hours visiting people who live in the street and offer them coffee, biscuits and conversation but, what we really do is to share a bit of their lives and their stories, to share who they are, who they were and who they will become one day. It is a very special group of people, very heterogeneous and, each one has a moving story behind.
We do not try to solve their problems. We would not be able even if we tried. If their problems were that easy to solve they would have probably found the way out themselves. Unfortunately we do not have the power to save the world but we do have the ability to listen, to share, to smile and, for one moment, to change the world of those around us.
I joined Solidarios thinking about giving and, without realizing, I ended up receiving much more that I could possibly give. My commitment has evolved into a need. If one week I cannot go out I miss the homeless people I normally see and end up finding a way to see them. I could even say that they have become a very important part of my life, of who I am, the same way that I hope to have become, even a little bit, part of theirs. I am overwhelmed with emotion when I see they remember my name and any personal stories I may have shared, the same way I remember theirs.
There are always other volunteers in these evening walks. Throughout the years I have met many volunteers, incredible people who never stop amazing me and who I deeply admire. I started rotating in various evening walks and ended up covering the area of Colón. One of the things that impresses me the most of this walk is the location, right where I work. There are so many people living in the streets around my office, theoretically located in a very upscale neighborhood that, when I started, I was shocked and could not believe the different reality at 50 feet from my office.
People like you and me, with their hopes and dreams, with their good and not-so-good days, with their personalities, with their past, with their present and with the hope of a future. People that I probably came across in the street on a daily basis on my way to the office and who I never bothered to look at. People who had been translucent to me until the moment I came out of my comfort zone carrying a thermos with coffee and a smile, leaving aside all that many prejudice that prevents me from seeing the world as it really is. I wish that one day I could get rid of it forever…
For weeks, months and years I have shared many stories. I have seen them arrive and leave, some of them unfortunately forever. I have shared their memories, their jokes, their sadness, their love stories… with them I have laughed and I have had to hold my tears, sometimes feeling powerless, other in frustration, trying to keep that close distance, that distant closeness that defines our relationship.
Little by little love arises. How would it not, if they are incredible people. Each one in his own way, they all become very important people in the volunteers’ lives. Each one with their name and last name, with their specific story, find a way to our hearts.
To the point that they are really missed when they leave. Some move to a flat and start a new life. Some others find a job. Others simply disappear and sometimes they come back and sometimes they do not. And some leave forever just like that, in a rainy night, among their cardboard improvised houses, as silently as they arrived.
Death in the street burns me inside. I cannot avoid wondering whether this person who left completely alone had a family, the number of times that they tried to get out of the street, to fight, to change their reality. And the number of times that they were sent back into the streets, feeling even more powerless and miserable with each No, with each one who turns and looks into another direction. It really burns me inside because their reality is mine, the same way it is yours too. We are all the same, if they exist is because something did not work, not because they wanted to be in that situation.
They all have a name, a face and a very personal and special reality. I would like to share some of the stories they shared and the lessons I have learnt so that, the same way it happened with me, they may have a name for you too. So that, every time you walk next to somebody living in the street, you wonder whether that person is Salvador, Alfonso, Antonio, Julio… Each homeless person you come across has a story behind, many times full of really hard tests from life.
And the reality is that one does not end up in the street from one day to the next. One does not look for it, does not wish for it and, of course, does not deserve it. It is a vicious circle in which we enter little by little, without even realizing and from which it is very difficult to get out. I love asking children what they want to become when they grow up because of the energy and the way they shine when they share their dreams. Well, let me tell you… so far I have not found a single child who says that he wants to become a homeless when he grows up…
All of them were children one day, with their hopes and dreams. They all fought for their opportunity in life, the same way we all do. But maybe they were less lucky and one day all their dreams turned upside down.
If I have learnt something out there it is that none of us are infallible. However strong we may believe we are, however well equipped for survival when think we are, at the end of the day our lives are supported by various pillars that, for some reason, we believe (or want to believe) are indestructible and eternal, but which are not.
Any random day, for whatever circumstances, self-provoked or purely random, our pillars of health, family, social network, work… could fall apart. Whenever that happens we would use all the resources at hand to rebuild them in whichever way we can.
But what happens when various pillars fall apart simultaneously? When you rebuild them and they fall again? When you lose control and can no longer understand why the most important things in life disappear while you powerlessly observe? You suddenly are defenseless, exposed into a reality which you can no longer cope with and that is overwhelming.
I am absolutely convinced that we all have a limit, no matter how strong and fighting we are. You can fight, you can refuse to accept reality but there is a given number of hits that you can take and still stand. Each person has a limit but, once that limit is surpassed you are exposed, defenseless face to face with life, with death in a limbo from which it is very hard to exit.
And then, what resources are left? Abandonment? Rage? Indiference? A bitter mix of all? I cannot say loud enough how much I admire some of the homeless people I have met. Despite all what they have been through they do not lose the smile and sense of humour. They care about others, are interested, keep an anchor in the world…
Sometimes there is social isolation, mental disorders, drinking, drugs… Does that mean that homeless people are convicts and drug addicts? Of course not! It is a minority who are dependent on drugs and alcohol, the same that could happen with “homefull” people.
And, in addition, who am I to judge? What right do I have to opine? Do I have the faintest idea of what my life would look like had I experienced a fraction of what they have? It is very easy to speak from the safety of distance but I often wonder whether I would have the inner strength and courage to wake up every day if life had beaten me up the way it has to many of them.
This is why I can only admire them, smile and want to share their lives. Give them all the love they deserve and that so many times has been denied to them.
I cannot forget some of the moments I have lived in those long winter night walks. For example, trying to convince Capital Carlos, who was part of the Colombian guerrilla, to stop drinking. “Captain” Had we not agreed in no more drinking? You know this does you no good!”. He stared into my eyes and replied: “My girl, you have a family, you have friends, you have a life worth fighting for. Look at me, I am alone in the world, I have nothing left. Who cares if I drink and get drunk?”. How can I explain to him that it is worth living without drinking, that there is an amazing world out there, that not everybody is a bad person and that it is a true pleasure to hear his laughter when he is sober.
MEMORABLE PHRASES AND MOMENTS
This is a compilation of phrases to remember and moments that I have lived in the street. Tehre are so many incredible lessons out there. I wish I could always bring a little notebook with me so that I do not for get any …
– “They can take all material things from me but they cannot take my dreams”, S.
– “I know I have to be strong to get out of drugs. If I made it once, I will make it this time again”, J.
– Marina’s face, at Teatro Colón, when she saw a pair of boots that were her size. Thanks Lucía for your present for Marina and for helping her heart smile.
– The moment when various homeless go back to the Fernán Gómez theatre, where they used to sleep and realize that the Cleaning services of the Mairie has thrown away all their belongings (suitcase, blankets, belongings…)
– “Why would I want to win the lottery? I would only change some issues for others…”, Iván , a philosopher and a fun person
– Careful, the volunteers are coming (once we approached a group who were listening to a radio program about sex!!)
– Me: “Great, so you are going to see your children in Christmas Even?” Hugo, silence and tears in his eyes
– “My girl, you have family and friends. I am alone, I have nothing left. Why should I not drink?”, Captain Carlos
– “Sometimos when I wake up in the mornings and see that the phone is not ringing, that nobody calls to interview me, that there are no job offers, I feel desperate. I do not know for how long I can survive like this. Being homeless ends up driving you crazy”, Alfonso [NOTE: Alfonso ended up finding a job and we did not see him again… we wish him the best and thank him for showing us that there is some hope to exit the street]
– ME: “Best of luck and hope that we never meet again or that, if we ever do, it will be under very different circumstances”
– “We must fight for our dreams” –Atocha Walk, August 2008, my first day as a voluntee