The anonymous society
In large cities, many people, the so-called "homeless" live in the streets. There are many reasons to explain these individual situations: mental disorders, "attention to the community" problems, broken families, addiction to drugs or to alcohol, difficulties to adaptation after having served prison sentences or immigrants that find themselves in front of a society that doesn't take care of them. And along with that, these are societies with high unemployment and labor precariousness numbers. Homeless people are socially uprooted and take part in the wider context of "social exclusion", which cannot be simply reduced to the absence of a home.
Many of these men and women have been rejected by official institutions or depend on them because they have been their guests at the foundling home, in the orphanage, in prisons, in social diners… Although we sometimes get the impression that some of them are aggressive and violent - and they don't lack reasons for it - they tend to be people who enormously thank a visit or any sign of affection. Sometimes the least grave of problems is the lack of a home or a bed, the harshness of the cold or the suffocation of the heat. Their saddest lack is not having the consciousness of their dignity for being people, of their rights and their duties. The outrageous thing is for them to fall in the claws of apathy and in the cynical attitude as a result of not having someone who loves them.
We have called them beggars, poverty-stricken people, transients... All of these are terms that show a shade of meaning or do not respond to the so-diverse reality that wants to be described. Today, the term "homeless people" is often used because of what it supposes in terms of a common lack of family, roots, friendship, love and any factor that entails human warmth.
Many institutions, both private and public, have tried to find solutions to the problem. There are shelters, social diners, health centers, public bathrooms, etc. that direct their social action towards transients. But the facts and the numbers reflect insufficiency in what attention concerns. All the organizations that work with the "homeless" insist that it is very difficult to talk about results on social reinsertion. Many are the obstacles that render difficult to take on a sustained and systematic work with transients. Amongst them, it is very frequent to find mentally ill, psychic diminished people who should be confined in a center, follow an ambulatory treatment or to live under the shelter of their families. The consumption of drugs and of alcohol, specially, is also usual. Diseases, due to the filthiness of the environment, often leave irreversible sequels and accidents are frequent.
The second report by the European Observatory for the "homeless" (1993) offers impressive numbers: in the European Union there are about 2.5 millions acknowledged to live in those conditions. But these numbers only include those who don't have a home or that entered public or private shelters. It does not include unknown transients or others who, due to the shelter's instability, to unemployment and to chronic pains unattended by public centers, are doomed to that "homeless" condition. The European Observatory calculates that the number that should be used to evaluate the number of people without a home in the European Union is five million people.
Professor Hobsbawm narrates that even developed countries had to grow accustomed again to the daily vision of beggars on the streets, as well as the spectacle of the homeless people sheltering at the porches under the cover of cardboard boxes. "In any given night of 1993, in New York City, 23,000 people slept on the streets or in public shelters." In England, 400,000 people were labeled as "homeless people" in 1989.
There are organizations that look after these people, not only in giving them shelter, but also in visiting them and accompanying them in their reality. Because if the main task of social volunteering is to change existing structures, we must understand these as something that penetrates every reality, not only the economic, political and social macro-structures, but also the mental ones, the way of thinking borne out of a radical attitude towards life. The danger of losing ourselves in discussions about structures while forgetting that these do not exempt us from personal responsibilities is grave.
We pick Monsignor Oscar Romero's words, "How easy it is to report structural injustice, institutionalized violence, social sin! And all of this is true, but where are all the sources of social sin? Today's society is like a species of anonymous society where nobody wants to blame others and we are all responsible." Hence the urgency in the duty of transforming the structures of oppression and injustice into structures of solidarity and justice.
Carlos Gª Fajardo
Translated by Carlos Miguélez