Barcelona, Spain has been hit hard by the economic recession. During the economic crisis, unemployment has risen to 20%. In 2009, the real estate bubble burst, leaving thousands of people unable to pay their mortgages.
An outside observer might expect to find rapidly rising numbers of people living on the streets in this city of three million people. While the numbers of people experiencing homelessness have increased by five percent between 2008 and 2009, city leaders attribute the relatively low increase to strong extended family networks and a new social inclusion initiative.
The city estimates that on any given night, roughly 1,500 people in Barcelona are experiencing homelessness. During the last annual census, on the evening of March 12, 2010, some 650 people were sleeping outdoors and 850 were sleeping in shelters. These numbers do not reflect those who were doubled-up with family or friends or were otherwise “invisible” to city counters. Of the 1,500 people counted that night, however, none were children. The city maintains a safety net that guarantees children will not end up living on the streets.
“The most important reason for the small number is the safety net of solidarity that people have with their extended families,” says Ricard Gomà, Barcelona’s second vice-mayor. He is responsible for the city’s Social Action and Citizenry Department, which oversees programs for people experiencing homelessness. “The support network from extended family in Barcelona is as close-knit as you’re likely to find anywhere, and much stronger than you’ll find in an Anglo-Saxon society.”
The city has invested resources to offer alternatives for those who do not have extended family to rely upon. Five years ago, the city had four staff members working full-time in homeless assistance. Now there are fifty. According to Gomà, “During the past five years we have built a network between City Hall and various entities to reach our goal of social inclusion. To achieve it, we have fifty professionals in the street every day, identifying people without roofs in the initial phases of their problems. In contrast, in Rome, with five thousand people in the streets, they don’t have socio-educational programs, nor preventive programs. I think this is the big difference.”
In 2005, the city had emergency housing (similar to transitional housing in the U.S.) in only one of its ten districts. By 2010, emergency housing was available in every district. “This a resource for families at high risk of losing housing and who have no social or family support. In 2010, we provided emergency housing to 1,000 people through about 150 units of housing. We also have a network of inclusion housing that includes social workers who can help these families or individuals to stabilize. We have some 300 units of social inclusion housing that serve about 1,500 people who will stay for a period of six months to a year.” Social inclusion housing is subsidized and requires a referral by a caseworker.
In 2005, an agreement called A Citizen’s Agreement for an Inclusive Barcelona was signed by 450 social action agencies, charities, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In cooperation with city government, the agreement created eight networks to address different aspects of social inclusion, including:
- assistance for those living in homelessness
- socially responsible businesses
- job training
- centers for infants and adolescents
- assistance in receiving and integrating recently arrived immigrants
- foster families
- accessible housing
- cultural events for social inclusion.
Assistance for people experiencing homelessness is the responsibility of The Network for People Without A Roof, a network of 24 charities and NGOs and the city government. The Network provides both day and night services. Day services include a place to leave belongings, a meal, showers, workshops, and common rooms. The night services offer an evening meal and a bed. The 2010 survey counted a total of 1,108 persons using the day-time facilities and 842 using night-time services.
In addition to providing these services, the Network has undertaken a campaign to end homelessness in Barcelona by the year 2015. It is part of Barcelona’s response to the European Union’s designation of 2010 as the “Year of the War on Poverty and Exclusion.” The slogan for Barcelona’s campaign is “Imagine a 2015 with No One Living in the Street.”
In order to achieve this goal, more than 200 members of the Network have formed outreach teams to go into the city’s markets to distribute brochures explaining to citizens what they can do to help make the campaign’s slogan a reality. “Citizens need to convert themselves into a pressure group on the public powers to insist that even in times of economic crisis, social inclusion has to be a priority,” says Gomà.
Gomà suggests that a critical factor in Barcelona’s formula to combat social exclusion is local government. “There’s no doubt that government is the main engine for providing public health and education. Five years ago, this wasn’t the approach when addressing issues of social exclusion. It was the territory of charities and NGOs. Now we believe that in the fight against social exclusion, the principal engine has to be the public administration. Once that principle is established, the public administration will work with, and count on, the charities and NGOs.”
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