Ignoring the Homeless
by ELISA BARBAGLIA
As I stroll down Gran Vía in Madrid, I notice an endless amount of people slumped on the sidewalk. The sky is blanketed by murky clouds as some of these people ask for money, some sleep, some accompanied by dogs, and some just sit there staring into the emptiness. I become completely enraged by this gloomy scene when I notice virtually no pedestrians glance their way a second time, completely shutting these people out of their world. They are homeless – but that does not mean that they do not deserve to be heard.
This grand social issue is typically ignored by most societies, especially in Europe. In most cities I’ve traveled to – Madrid, Milan, Paris, and Vienna – there are countless people around the city without a home who sit on sidewalks, completely ignored by the passersby. This summer, I worked at an art gallery in Venice, where the exposition of a Colombian artist showcased photographs of homeless people surrounded by gold paper. The artist explained how, in Colombia, homelessness has been a major issue for decades and how Western societies fail to come to their aid. I was bewildered that this artist failed to understand the problem of homelessness, unfortunately, exists all over the world and not just in developing countries. According to Global Homelessness Statistics there are roughly 40,000 people affected by homelessness in Spain alone , sitting in the cold, the rain, the snow or the heat. Ignored by the rest of society, they are the underdogs. Instead of coming to their rescue or attempting to aid them in whichever way possible, we choose to shut our eyes and pretend the issue doesn’t exist – so we don’t feel the pang of guilt in the pit of our stomachs. Perhaps this is because it is more than what our hearts could stand to bear: the thought of young, middle-aged and even older people living in the streets with nothing to their name. It is far too easy to assume that the government will take care of this “problem” because more often than not it is unfortunately not a top priority on their agenda.
Everything in life can be put into perspective if you take a few steps back and take a look at the bigger picture. I realized this during my summer in Laigueglia this year, when a middle-aged homeless woman asked me for some spare change. As I dug around in my bag for some, I decided to offer her some lunch. We walked to a sandwich shop together and we began conversing. She interrogated me about my life plans, what I was studying and what I would like to do once I graduate. I discovered that she graduated from the Politecnico Milan with a mechanical engineering degree, at which point I mentioned my father also graduated from that university in the same bachelor. She laughed it off and asked where my parents lived now. This fascinating woman with tanned olive skin and bright blue eyes, who I knew couldn’t be a day over 45, had the signs of a troubled past reflected in her face and eyes.
Her name is Marta and she explained to me that many years ago her husband and only child had passed away in a car accident. After she lost everything, she refused to continue living at home with the rest of her family, instead choosing to be blurred in the background. A bitter pill far too difficult to swallow had been planted in her soul, but despite enduring the most difficult pain of all, she shared with me that she did not see herself as homeless but as a nomad, traveling from one city to the next.
Not all homeless people are as optimistic as Marta who opted for a life wandering through the unknown streets. Some people do not choose homelessness. In the updated Spanish constitution of 1978, Article 47 claims that “All Spaniards are entitled to enjoy decent and adequate housing.” Although it is a constitutional right, this is regrettably not the case for a vast portion of the Spanish population. There are several organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Housing Rights Watch that inform citizens of their constitutional rights and raise awareness about homelessness. However, it continues to be a prevalent issue in Europe today.
Although it seems society, to some extent, wants to shut out this group of people, the homeless have created a sense of community between themselves, by helping each other in whichever way possible. Marta explains that on several occasions she had found herself without shelter under the rain or in the cold, her stomach aching from the lack of nutrition and her throat parched. It is in these situations that she claims she can always rely on her fellow nomads to lend a helping hand in whichever way possible. With little or nothing to their name, they were the first to offer her aid. It was truly moving to view this social issue from an entirely new perspective. All of a sudden Marta shed a completely new and bizarre light on an issue I had grown completely numb to over the years. The issue of homelessness has surrounded our societies for too long and, as a population, we have grown far too accustomed to it. We use this as an excuse to continue ignoring it.
Perhaps we are the homeless ones. Living our lives so ignorantly, earphones in and head to the floor, unaware of those beneath us and unwilling to do anything about it. Who is to say that home is the walls that hold our belongings and not the knowledge that others would help us in times of need? It is time that, as a society, we consider what home really means, because – like Marta – it can all too easily be taken away from us.
As the pedestrians in Laigueglia shifted their bodies around Marta and I, she explained how a single life-altering event flung her into an unknown world she was not accustomed to, yet she quickly found herself a part of a whole new home.