“Recently, three young men came into the ATM on Gran Vía where I sleep and robbed my bag containing my belongings,” says Raúl, a 53-year-old homeless Argentine. “Another time, some drunks came in to take out money and laughed as they kicked me. Other times, it’s insults like, ‘Look at you! You dirty piece of shit!’”
23,000 people sleep rough in Spain
Raúl describes this litany of aggression and contempt hesitantly. But his account, along with those of others sleeping rough around Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, indicate that the recent case where a group of English tourists paid a homeless man €100 in Benidorm to tattoo a name on his forehead, is far from the exception.
According to the Rais Foundation, which combats marginalization and social exclusion, a third of those who sleep on the street have either been insulted or abused, a tendency which is on the rise. In September the Senate will vote on a proposal from the left-wing Podemos party to include such aggressions as an aggravating circumstance in the criminal code, in line with other hate crimes.
Spanish philosopher and ethics professor Adela Cortina coined the word aporophobia, the fear of poor people, to describe how the homeless are targeted and marginalized.
According to Spain’s National Statistics Institute, there are as many as 23,000 homeless people in Spain. The Rais Foundation maintains the figure is closer to 31,000, taking into account those who avoid assistance. All are the target of an intangible but very real hatred.
“Sleeping and living in the street involves an element of structural violence which is aggravated by direct attacks,” says Gema Castilla, a spokeswoman for Rais.
The NGO published a terrifying report on the homeless in 2016, which explained that almost half of those sleeping rough had been subjected to an incident or offense related to aporophobia – 80% on more than one occasion and 20% involving physical violence.
Alberto, 47, sleeps in the entrance to the Plaza Mayor. His t-shirt is emblazoned with the Spanish flag and he has a small suitcase, which he covers with a soiled white sheet.
“One Christmas Eve, I was sleeping in an ATM in Salamanca and a group of people came up to me and kicked me. It often happens when someone who has been drinking or is on drugs comes up to you,” he says. “It’s very peaceful in the Plaza Mayor. People are used to seeing us and there are security cameras. I’d rather be here and be seen because homeless people are part of reality. I want to be seen.”
When a person is living on the street and they are assaulted, there is no safe place to go
Jesús, 65, who lives in the passageway that connects the Plaza Mayor to Homónima Street, says, “One day I was walking along Barquillo Street because I was meeting the social worker and a man asked me the time. When I replied, he suddenly started hitting me. I told him to leave me alone, but he gave me two big swipes.”
The passageway where Jesús keeps his cardboard bedding and which he shares with four others, opens onto the entrance to a car park and a restaurant. “Sometimes the people walking by are aggressive and shout and insult me. Other times, they tell us we’re disgusting, and why don’t we wash,” he says.
In her book on aporophobia, Cortina explains, “They hate the poor, those who are powerless, people who seem to be bringing more problems rather than helping us to improve our lives. I coined the phrase from the Greek word aporoi.”
According to Cortina, the homeless are extremely vulnerable as they lack a private space. Consequently, it is crucial to launch campaigns to tackle aporophobia, a term that was included last December in the Spanish dictionary and selected by the Emergency Spanish Language Foundation as their word of the year.
The Ministry of the Interior already considers aporophobia a hate crime: in 2016, 10 incidents were reported to the police. The following year, there were 11. “When a person is living on the street and they are assaulted, there is no safe place to go,” says a spokesman for Rais. “They often don’t report the attack because the aggressor can come back and kill them. There are many more incidents than the Ministry of the Interior has registered. You only have to look at the news. Refusing to serve a homeless person in a bar or not letting them use the toilets is also aporophobia if it’s just because they are poor.”
Podemos believes that the situation could improve if aporophobia were recognized as an aggravating cause in the criminal code, on a par with racism and islamophobia. Last year, the anti-austerity party proposed a motion in the Senate that was supported by all political parties except Asturias Forum. Now En Comú Podem’s Joan Comorera has proposed making it a law.
“The state attorney general was already pointing out the need to include aporophobia as an aggravating circumstance in 2015,” says Comorera. “We believe that with this proposal, this intolerable omission will be rectified.”
In 2005, for example, two young men burned homeless woman Rosario Endrinal alive and no aggravating circumstance could be applied.
“If it is approved by all parties, it will pass through to Congress and the reform could be in place before the end of the year and applied to cases like the one we have just witnessed in Benidorm, “ says Comorera.
Spokesmen for the Popular Party and the Socialists, who voted in favor of the previous motion, appear to back the initiative, though they have yet to study the details. Meanwhile, a spokesman for Ciudadanos explained that if the reform penalizes discrimination, they would also support it when it reached the lower house.
Meanwhile, hatred of the homeless continues. According to Jesús Sandín, from charity organization Supporting Development, “People who are poor are subjected to continual violence and that affects their self-esteem and motivation.”
With the help of 150 volunteers, the organization has spent 22 years tackling the loneliness that living rough can often entail. “They [the homeless] are not lazy, they are not different. The only difference is their circumstances and we would like to change the way society sees them,” says Sandín.
According to Cortina, labeling perverse social realities is the first step towards getting rid of them.
English version by Heather Galloway.