Longer queues at soup kitchens: "We used to get fuller bags"
Many weathered the previous crisis but are now turning to food banks for the first time
BarcelonaWhen covid arrived in Catalonia and stopped everything, Manuel, an electrician by profession, was left without a job. He has two dependent children and has to look after his mother, who is very old and receives a non-contributory disability pension of just over 400 euros. This is the household's only income: Manuel has been trying for months to contact the job centre to collect his family assistance, but has not been able to do so. "It's collapsed," he complains. For seven months he has had no choice but to go to El Caliu soup kitchen, run by Sant Joan d'Horta parish.
There he meets up with friends who are in a similar situation. Many, like him, had never needed help paying for their food until the covid crisis came along. In fact, church charity Cáritas almost doubled the number of picnics it distributed between April and December 2020 in Barcelona. At El Caliu the number of regulars has also increased during the pandemic: they reached 200 people per day, but more food distribution centres were opened and now they have a maximum of 150. Before the covid crisis, however, there were under 90. In the same line, the Barcelona Community of Sant'Egidio has tripled the number of meals it has distributed during the pandemic: it helps 700 families, a total of 3,000 people.
Worse than the 2008 crisis of 2008
The field hospital of Santa Anna church in Barcelona is overwhelmed. "We have a stable community of 120 homeless people. We offer them hot meals and other services, but health restrictions do not allow us to serve more people, however much we would like to," says Adrià Padrosa, social coordinator of the Santa Anna field hospital. During these last cold days, 10 homeless people are also sleeping on the premises. "The health crisis is nothing compared to the social crisis," Padrosa points out.
Manuel, José and Jorge, who drink hot coffee together at the entrance of the church while they chat, say that there are now many more people who come to El Caliu than at the beginning of the pandemic, when they started going. "The line wasn't that long, no way," says José. There are those who wear masks that are old and frayed, but everyone scrupulously respects the physical distance and puts on hydro-alcoholic gel before picking up the bag of food. More or less everyone gets the same thing: a sandwich, some chicken, a piece of fruit, sweet and savoury pastry and a couple of ready-made dishes. "We used to get a fuller bag," says Manuel. The coordinator of El Caliu, Núria Font, corroborates that they could give them more meat and prepared meals, but now they are forced to dose the quantities. In addition, before covid users ate lunch inside the dining room and could have second helpings whenever they wanted. Some, after cold nights outdoors, drank two or three glasses of hot broth to warm up.
Both Manuel and José, who was a builder, and Jorge, who worked in setting up scaffolding, agree that this crisis has affected them more than in 2008. "I was working, at least I had odd jobs, but now there is nothing, everything is stopped. And it is far from over...", says Manuel. In fact, El Caliu was launched in 2010 as a result of the previous economic crisis. "The priest gave food to those who asked for it, but there were more and more. And we organised ourselves and started El Caliu," remembers Font.
Now they give lunches and picnics to everyone who comes to the place, but they also hand out parcels with all kinds of food to about thirty families that Cáritas Barcelona sends them after analysing their needs. As far as funding is concerned, El Caliu receives money and food from the neighbourhood's residents and shopkeepers, Cáritas, private companies and public administrations. "Over the last four years, the City Council has been cutting back on aid, but not now; it seems, on the contrary, that it is increasing", Font adds.
In addition to those who come to El Caliu because of covid, there are many who have been part of the community for years, like Robert, who was a glass-worker. "I'm true Horta, born and bred. I was baptised here," he says, pointing to the church. A neighbour cooks his meat and heats the ready-made meals, and he sleeps with a group in a branch of La Caixa. "No, I'm not alone," he answers, as he greets friends and acquaintances with his elbows. There are also cases like Martí's, who suffers from schizophrenia, lives in a state-protected flat and receives a disability benefit but can't afford food. There are those, says Font, who often have suicidal thoughts.
There are users, however, who find their way out and no longer have to stand in the daily queue. "This is what makes us most proud," smiles Font, who explains that some of them later become benefactors of El Caliu and help in one way or another: "They give us money or food or join our team of volunteers.