I spent my afternoon yesterday walking around Madrid city centre with a group of people, distributing sandwiches to the city's homeless.
I went with much ganas. Prepared to feel a lump in my throat, prepared to listen to terrible life stories, prepared to give them time and a smile.
Although I appreciate my life, I often feel that I lose perspective as to exactly how lucky I am; small, stupid problems often get the better of me for no good reason, so I also took this as a personal exercise to regain perspectives.
Run by Kelly, the activity falls under a group called Oasis (although affiliated to a church, you are not expected to be or do anything religious to participate) whose unofficial motto is "make poverty personal".
The idea came from the fact that in Madrid, there are enough social services and charities that take care of basic needs: food, clothing and temporary shelter, but nobody takes the effort to relate to the homeless, talk to them, build friendships. This is their focus that has the ultimate goal of getting them off the streets. Talking and building relationships gives them dignity and encouragement to feel normal and perhaps motivate them towards a better life. Awesome people, great intentions, a beautiful thought.
The group has a route across the centre and they know all the homeless they meet by first name, that was heartwarming to see. A bag with sandwiches, juice, fruit and a muffin is an excuse to approach them.
What was interesting about my experience was that I felt everything but sympathy towards these homeless people. Majority of them were smart, literate and physically fit -- no good reason to be on the street.
For instance: there was an ex-chef, Spaniard who lived in London for 10 years and spoke fluent English with a posh accent; a Cuban dude who has traveled the world, who was capable of having a political conversation and talked to me about Rabindranath Tagore; and a middle-aged lady with a mentally ill husband who had the audacity to ask us for a fragrant soap for her face!
A handful of them had no interest in our sandwiches. "We are not hungry now" was the main reason. What about dinner?
Of course, I understand that nobody wants to be on the street and their personal reasons as to why they are I may never comprehend, but I couldn't help thinking that these people aren't helpless -- they choose to be so. This shut me down. Although the thought behind the activity is wonderful, were we only encouraging these people to stay on the street?
I know this is probably not justified, but I couldn't help comparing the situation to that of India. In India poverty is real to a disgusting, tummy-churning extent. With over 700 million people below the poverty line, everyone can't get jobs and there aren't enough social services. Of these people, majority live in slums, some of them beg (they are normally children, suffering from leprosy, or dying of disease) but most of them who are physically capable, don't. They are all illiterate.
Coming back to Madrid, there was the odd person who the system had royally fucked: a couple from Bulgaria who came to Spain to make money so they can get their son operated. Nobody was ready to give them a job here as their papers were not in order, nor did they have enough money to sort them out. They tried for about 2-years; now they are on the street with no money to eat, let alone go back. There was also a dude from the Czech Republic who claimed that all his money, ID and belongings had been stolen. He didn't speak a word of Spanish or English, jobs were therefore impossible, so he had no option but to beg until he got enough money to head back to his country. He's going to be around for a long time!
What shocked me was the one guy I thought was the most helpless of them all (he has no hands, they are cut off from his shoulder), didn't want to talk to us, nor take our food. He earned a living begging by rattling a glass in his mouth and anytime spent not doing that was compromising his earnings.
All in all, I was left befuddled after this exercise. I didn't care about their plight, as to me, most of them were capable of fixing their situation. Their comfort with being reliant on social services and the thought that they probably have no intention of getting off the street -- laziness, habit, old-age, whatever -- made me not want to help them.
Maybe I'm being harsh. Maybe I'm from a culture that is not letting me empathize with these people. I'm quite delicate at heart, so my rigid and cold reaction to this was surprising to me.
I think the efforts and intentions of Oasis are fantastic, I truly wish them all the best. If their work can help get even one person off the street (which it has in the past), it's all worth it. However, I don't see myself going back.