QCOSTARICA — In Costa Rica, there are at least 5,815 people living on the streets, according to data from the Instituto Mixto de Ayuda Social (IMAS) – Mixed Institute for Social Assistance, an increase of 55% since 2020 driven by the economic impact of the pandemic.
It was during and after the pandemic that people like Ander Martínez, who worked for Western Union; Guillermo Hidalgo, who was a trailer and bus driver for nearly 30 years; and Carlos Perez, a 31-year-old who used to work, began to live on the street.
The three stories are linked by deep family emotional wounds and feelings of abandonment and loneliness that result from their experience living on the streets.
Hidalgo, 61, says that his situation resulted from not being able to renew his license as a driver, after a traffic ticket of around ¢300,000 that he could not afford in 2019 and in his unsuccessful job search.
“I couldn’t find where to go because I don’t have a family, I came to San José and then to Alajuela to pick coffee, then back to San José. Thank God I don’t have vices that could have made things worse, but finding work was still incredibly hard and he found himself in a really severe depression,” Hidalgo said.
In the last three years the profile of the population living on the streets has changed significantly, says the general director of projects of the Fundación Pro Mundo (Pro Mundo Foundation), Luis Pablo Montenegro, who has been working with this group for 12 years.
Montenegro points out that until 2018 the problem faced by people who live on the street was mainly associated with substance use, but then began an increase related to the socioeconomic deterioration of the country.
However, it was during and after the pandemic that people who prior had not used drugs, engaging in drug use. This was largely due to a lack of income and the emotional strain of being exposed to the streets. Montenegro noted that state aid is inadequate, often arriving too late and not providing enough support for those who wish to regain their lives.
The accelerated increase among people living on the street coincides with the large cuts to social programs that address poverty and extreme poverty, such as the Fondo de Desarrollo Social y Asignaciones Familiares (Fodesaf) – Fund for Social Development and Family Allowances, which reached its lowest point this year of the decade.
A difficult economic situation is one step away from putting families on the streets and poverty has increased since December 2022, according to data from the Instituto de Investigaciones en Ciencias Económicas (IICE) – Institute for Research in Economic Sciences.
Inequality is also growing and, according to the State of the Nation, it is the highest gap since the 1980s and has nearly 350,000 households on the brink of the poverty line, despite the post-pandemic recovery.
Yorleny León, executive president of IMAS, admitted that the institution lost track of this population during the pandemic and that they are currently working to resume efforts to find out precisely if the population increased and “what is the situation on the subject”, since prior to the pandemic, most were still associated with substance use.
People living on the streets are constantly on the move and this is one of many reasons why Montenegro and IMAS itself warn that there is a significant underreporting that organizations tend to estimate at up to 30%.
“The hardest thing is the walks that one takes looking for food, one walks and walks… I make an effort to cook, I go in at 6 in the morning to prepare everything because I was on the other side, I am still a homeless person, but I make an effort, we cook very well here, and our pizza has nothing to envy to Escalante,” said Ander Martínez, who is a volunteer in the kitchen of Chepe se Baña.
Martínez plays the guitar, speaks English, and for many years worked in a private company. His main problem, he says, is his management of emotions — which he drowns with alcohol — which led him to live on the street and now prevents him from seeing his mother, who currently has advanced cancer and whom he used to care for and financially support.
Currently, Martínez regrets that he is rejected as a beneficiary of social support for not looking like a street inhabitant: “What they want is for me to consume (drugs) again or screw up I am no longer a person who consumes, but I am still a homeless person”.
Gabriela Naranjo, academic director of the Chepe se Baña project, indicated that other reasons for underreporting is the clash between State benefits, since some cannot opt for them if they declare that they are homeless, while others lose their help if they stop being homeless.
The approach of the organization to these problems, and to the new coexistence between street populations with and without drug dependency, has been the reduction of risks of harm.
That is, they seek to get involved in activities such as music, crafts, English classes, sewing, cooking, computing, and others during the day that result in “leisure hours in which they are not exposed to the streets” and, therefore, do not they do harm, nor do they hurt, explained Naranjo.
Women and migrants
The number of women living on the streets is much lower, Montenegro pointed out, but she also clarified that they are more easily made invisible since they are often prostituted, so their consumption or dependence is done in the privacy of a room.
Naranjo added that the history of women is usually very different and that they tend to ask less for help because they are often taken advantage of.
“They want to abuse and subjugate them because they are addicted or commercialized sexually, etc., they are made to feel marked and that makes it more difficult to have statistics, but if you go for a walk in areas where there are street people, there are a considerable number of women,” she commented.
Regarding migrant populations, organizations tend to have a greater demand in waves, with mobile services, during the time that families cross the country.
Montenegro pointed out that the pressure does tend to increase in the number of people who live on the street, but that there is a sustained growth indifferent to these migratory phenomena and that many migrants —as in the case of Venezuelans— do not seek to stay in the country.
Magdalena Palos is a Honduran woman who migrated to Costa Rica and who, after four years living on the streets, found her place in the sewing courses at Chepe se Baña until she was able to improve her condition and manage to maintain a room.
“I had no family here when I arrived in 2018 and I suffered, they sent me to social work and I learned about the program, I liked it, they treat me well. My mom and dad knew how to sew, but they wouldn’t let me, now I’m learning,” she recounted.
Palos, however, kept details of her immigration history and limited herself to saying that there was no plan when she arrived and then that it did not turn out well, but that she currently feels good and happy with what she is doing.
In addition to the IMAS care data, of the total number of homeless people cared for, there is no information on the characteristics of this population. Montenegro said that, over the years, organizations with the support of private financing have managed to carry out censuses and recently supported one whose publication could elucidate the reality of the population living on the streets in a much more precise way, allowing the better design of policies for their attention and social reintegration.
Read the original article by Lucia Molina in Spanish at SemanarioUniversidad.com