While we were in Santiago, for two evenings a week I volunteered with a local homelessness charity, Corporación Nuestra Casa (Our House). A Chilean voluntary organisation, it has been providing food and shelter to the capital’s homeless for the past 16 years. The following is an account of one of the evenings I spent with the charity, handing out food on the streets of Santiago.
7.00pm Volunteers start gathering for the evening shift in the kitchen of Nuestra Casa HQ. An old colonial style building in vibrant Barrio Yungay in the west, it serves as a halfway house to some 30 men who were previously homeless, supporting them with subsidised rent and social care as they establish themselves in new existences off the streets.
There are about 10 volunteers who make it this evening. The atmosphere is lively and everyone chips in to prepare the food. On a Tuesday, when the work takes place locally, huge vats of stew are made and wheeled down the road in a shopping trolley to a nearby public hospital which serves as the meeting point. Today however is Thursday, and on Thursdays we travel across the city, so sandwiches are made that are far more easy to transport.
Huge containers of chocolate milk and fruit tea are also prepared. The drinks are especially sugary. For many of the clientele, this drink may be the only source of sugar in their day, providing them with a vital nutrient that will help replenish the body when the drugs they are taking wear off and the unavoidable comedown starts.
7.45pm We all don our Nuestra Casa pinnies and jump in the charity van. We are heading to the Vega Central, the wholesalers fruit and veg market to the north of the city centre. During the day when the market is in full swing, it is a frenetic and bustling place. In the evening however, with the traders gone, its character changes and the homeless reclaim the streets.
Parking in the main parking lot, we set up shop on the steps of the market. We split into two groups: one group stays on the steps dishing out sandwiches and hot drinks to everyone that turns up, the other group takes a bag of sandwiches and a container of tea and goes to meet the homeless out where they are. This evening, I join the latter group.
8.15pm Our first stop is a little park nestled between Artesanos and Santa Maria, where there are a number of groups of people hanging out on the grass.
The first group we talk to are two men that are lying on flattened cardboard boxes on the grass. Their belongings are stacked in a pile next to them, protected by a blanket thrown over the top. It is hard to pin down their ages – they are probably somewhere in their 40s – and they have friendly faces and warm smiles.
After accepting the sandwiches and drinks, we chat for a bit. They explain they prefer their life on the streets, where things are freer and fewer rules apply. They earn money informally; currently their main source of income is a makeshift stall on the pavement selling clothes, bric à brac and anything else they find that is sellable.
Their lighthearted and positive attitude is in stark contrast to the stereotype of homelessness – a hopeless situation that for many is not a choice but the last remaining option available.
8.25pm We next wander over to two young men in their 20s, sitting on the grass drinking a beer. Their story is far more common. Hailing from outside Santiago, they were drawn to the capital after getting caught up in a cycle of drink and drugs. Unable to find stable employment, they now live on the street, in a state of increased drug taking.
They recognise the situation that they are in, and talk openly of their drugs of choice. They explain that as the evening wears on, they will leave this part of the city as this is not their turf, and will head back into the centre where they are known. They appear at ease with the streets, and are in no rush to change their circumstances.
8.40pm We leave the park and cross the road, to a small patch of grass in the middle of a major intersection, the junction between Recoleta, Artesanos and Bellavista. Here, we find a cluster of tents and mattresses that make up the permanent encampment of a family that have been living on the streets for many years. Tarpaulin is hung between the trees to provide shade. I am told that between 20-30 people that live here, including two young children of 10 and 2 years old.
Some of the family are at work cleaning the windscreens of cars stopped at traffic lights. Some are just milling around the tents. We see a couple of people asleep in their tents, arms or legs protruding. It is clear that many are intoxicated.
The two major drugs on the streets of Santiago are pasta, a crude derivative of the coca leaf that is smoked with tobacco or cannabis, and a furniture solvent, the fumes of which are inhaled. Both are highly addictive and utterly debilitating.
Our group stops to speak to the matriarch of the family, the mother of the two young children. She is deeply distressed. The family are very concerned for the youngest boy, as he keeps having convulsions, and they fear he has a tumour in his brain. They have no money to seek medical care for him.
While my colleagues offer her advice, I go over to play with her little boy. He has a beautiful smiling face and wild frizzy black hair. Standing on the side of the pavement, he is being teased and tickled by his father. As I approach, he looks up to his dad for reassurance, a look which at once reminds me of Amber. It is hard to imagine what it would be like, to bring a young child up in this environment.
The family are at once confusing, chaotic yet reassuring. Living a hand to mouth existence, permanently camped in the baking sunshine in the middle of a major junction, it is not an easy existence. Drugs and insecurity are a major feature of their lives. But where there is family there is protection, and the family evidently have a strong and cohesive bond.
9.10pm We make our way from the junction into the back streets of the Paseo Patronato. Camped out on the pavement on mattresses and makeshift beds, we find a group of 10 or so men sheltering under shop porches. They are lying around and sleeping. All are heavily intoxicated. We have run out of sandwiches at this point, but there is still some tea which we share out to those that show interest.
As I hand out tea, I approach one man lying on some crates. My colleague quickly signals to me to avoid him, later explaining that a couple of weeks previously this man had lunged at him with a knife.
Most of the men are too inebriated to talk, so we do not stay long. As we leave, we stop to talk to a man in his 50s who is sitting on the pavement. He says little, seemingly unable to speak. After we leave, my colleague explains to me that he is schizophrenic, at times communicative, at others not.
9.25pm We start heading back to the carpark to join the other volunteers. The way back takes us past a family, sitting together on a couch at the side of the road. There are no tents or mattresses nearby so it is unclear where they sleep. A teenage girl is sat on the couch next to an infant’s car seat. I peer in, expecting to see a baby, only to find a tiny newborn puppy. Only a couple of days old, he is cuddly and lively, and a source of great joy as we hand out what is left of the tea.
In total, I spent eight evenings volunteering with Nuestra Casa. It gave me a much deeper understanding of homelessness in the capital, an issue that is shockingly prevalent, yet sadly much ignored. The experience was unsettling, at times even distressing, but ultimately hugely rewarding and an invaluable addition to this trip.
For more information about Nuestra Casa and the work they carry out, please visit their website http://www.nuestra-casa.cl/
* Throughout this post, while I have made every attempt to portray the individuals as accurately as possible, there is a possibility that some mistakes may have been made due to my limitations in Spanish.