Where do the homeless go at night? Finding a home in an unlikely place

If there’s one thing we all strive to find in this world – perhaps above most others – is to find a place we can call home. Home is where we find a sense of security and where we retreat to when we feel threatened. But coming home isn’t always to the most comfortable of places.

Inside the ABM kioskes of banks on any given night in Barcelona you are likely to find homeless people taking shelter. “Es muy malo,” I’ve overheard people say, their outer voice reflecting their instant repulsion at seeing “these people” there. This reaction that “It’s very bad” might be the common response in many places, not likely tolerated, and met with forcible removal. But one major bank in Spain – la Caixa – has reacted in an unexpected way.

homelessThe “Great Recession” has lambasted the Spanish economy in recent years, leading to a 26% unemployment rate nationally and an astounding 50% among youth. The effects have been devastating for many. For those having family the recession might be somewhat blunted if they are able to move in together, but with those having no family or home, what are they to do?

I’ve heard shocking stories about violence against the homeless who take up residence in la Caixa Banks. A while back I read about one woman who was doused in gas and set on fire. She died a few days later. Another was severely beaten and barely survived. A friend told me a few months ago how la Caixa opened up its doors and has allowed the homeless inside at night.

To be sure, not everyone has reacted negatively. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen people drop off food for those taking up residence here, a gesture that is clearly appreciated.

Over the past few months where I live in Barcelona, I’ve observed it all first hand and have gathered tidbits of knowledge about the social problem, varying public reaction, and the Bank seemingly willing to give them “a home” of sorts. My curiosity has been piqued for sure.

So I’ve developed a little relationship with “Javier” (I don’t know his real name) who takes up residence in my local la Caixa bank, along with his friend and his friend’s dog. Over a period of a few months we’ve progressed to the point of exchanged pleasantries. “Javier seems very nice,” I’ve thought to myself as I wondered what his story was. But this one night recently, I mustered up enough courage to ask him a couple of questions, curious how he would respond.

“Que tal?” (How are you doing?), I asked him?

“Bien, y tu?” (Good, and you?), he replied politely with a little smile.

His friend also nodded and his dog got up to greet my dog Zeus.

In my limited ability to speak Spanish I told him I was writing a blog about people in Barcelona who need help and that I had heard la Caixa allows people to sleep in the bank at night. I wanted to know what thought about this?  He told me he has no family, no job and no money so yes, it is good of the bank. Then he looked at the floor.

The whole interaction took all of two minutes or so, but at that point, I was feeling pretty badly for him and not wishing to infringe further on his privacy, I didn’t probe any more, except to ask him it was ok to take his picture for the blog. He just replied, “Si” but kept looking at the floor. I snapped his picture quickly, thanked him and left, not sure if I had done the right thing.

I don’t know why I felt so much guilt about talking to Javier. In my heart I felt it worthy to tell his story such as I could. But I also felt a profound sense of sadness as I wondered what his future would be like. I am sure there must be many inspiring stories of homeless people overcoming their challenges – perhaps finding employment, then finding a home and ultimately returning to a sense of contribution and fulfillment. For anyone who wants to share such stories, I’d love to hear them.

But for the most part now, I just wanted to share how la Caixa did something unexpected which likely cost the bank very little, but which has a big impact on those who have no other home.


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