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Fined for being broke: the homeless asked to cough up for sleeping rough

Barcelona City Hall issued over 1,000 such sanctions last year, despite the fact that many will never be paid

Carlos, John and Miquel belong to a group of homeless people who live in the plaza of Folch i Torres in the Raval neighborhood of downtown Barcelona. They and half a dozen others form a ring around a few cartons of wine, a box of cereals and a beat-up radio that provides music. On Tuesday their routine was altered by a visit from the news media. The Síndica de Greuges (ombudswoman) of Barcelona showed the group to the cameras, criticizing what she considered the municipal government's absurd policy of handing out fines to indigents for sleeping in the street.

"It doesn't make sense. It is surprising that City Hall wastes policemen's time giving fines to people who are flat broke and will never pay," says the ombudswoman, María Assumpció Vilà.

"You think I'm going to pay 180 euros, when I'm sleeping in the street?"

There are no data for the final month of the year, but in the rest of 2011 the municipality issued a total of 1,169 fines to people found sleeping in the street, a figure similar to the 1,239 issued in 2010. This works out to three fines per day.

A City Hall source stresses that backpackers and young tourists who camp in the street account for most of this total, as demonstrated by the fact that the figure rises sharply in summer. In July and August 176 and 263 fines were issued respectively, while in winter the monthly total falls to 30.

Barcelona's Civic Behavior bylaw, which came into effect in 2006, provides for fines of up to 500 euros for camping and sleeping in the public street. But the bylaw also mentions that "in no case will the fine be imposed" on individuals who are apparently destitute. City Hall denies that homeless people are fined for sleeping in the street, but statistics show otherwise. Fines of this sort go nowhere, because they are simply never paid.

Occasionally, as an act of defiance, the yellow slip of paper is torn up in front of the police officer's eyes. "You think I'm going to pay 180 euros, when I'm sleeping in the street?" sneers Carlos. He has a point.

John is 40 and has been sleeping on the hard asphalt for four months, in which time he has received seven fines. Carlos has a collection of 20 fines from his two years residing "under the stars," while Miquel has lost count of the paper slips that the Guardia Urbana (city police) have given him in the 22 years he has been living rough.

But not all the penalties handed out are for sleeping outdoors. Many are for drinking or urinating in a public place. "We know it's bad to piss in the street, but if they don't let us into the bars, and there are no public toilets, then what do we do?" asks John.

The group in the Folch i Torres square just ignore the fines. But someone has preferred to complain to the ombudswoman. A homeless person of Italian origin, who inhabits the Poble Sec quarter, filed a complaint, showing a fine of 473 euros for camping and sleeping in the street.

When María Assumpció Vilà asked the authorities for explanations, she was told that this individual had accumulated almost 100 fines for different misdemeanors.

Ramón Noró of the Arrels Foundation, which gives aid to the homeless, calls for another approach to the problem.

"The mere fact that there are people sleeping in the street is a signal of alarm, and this is what we have to do something about," he says.