Misc 11/12/2020

Tug of war over homelessness leaves a power vacuum

Complaint to demand a plan that addresses solutions for precarious housing in Catalonia

Marta Rodríguez Carrera
4 min
El dron dels Bombers sobrevolant les restes calcinades de la nau cremada al Gorg de Badalona

BarcelonaThe strategy of avoidance that the administrations have practiced before the devastating fire of the industrial warehouse in Badalona - in which three people have died - confirmed what the special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights' issues of the UN said. After having visited Spain -also Catalonia-, Australian Philip Alston left in writing that politicians "have largely failed the people living in poverty", there is no supply of affordable housing, and social services are lacking in resources and investment.

The rapporteur's report, presented in February, before the pandemic, did not detail this, but one of the big problems in Catalonia is that, in addition, it has not deployed a structural plan to tackle homelessness, and it is the local councils that have to struggle with the situations as they occur. The lack of political will or resources in smaller municipalities means that there are few local programmes for those who live in substandard housing, and even fewer to offer them emergency care. This occurs because there is no reliable census of how many people are homeless in Catalonia and, as the Minister for Social Affairs has confirmed, there are also no reliable census of how many homes and settlements are squatted.

Another city council of the Barcelona region admitted that if a similar misfortune happened in their municipality, they would not have had the capacity to react beyond giving financial aid for food, because they do not have an offer of emergency accommodation, beyond paying for a few nights in a hostel. In other municipalities, the authorities say that they recommend the person who survives on the street to look for solutions in Barcelona. It is precisely from the city council of the Catalan capital that the commissioner of Social Services, Sònia Fuertes, calls on the Generalitat to take "the lead" in designing a real strategy to unify everything, from services to evaluation mechanisms.

Entrenched problems

The disused settlements or industrial warehouses occupied by people without any other alternatives are a phenomenon that has been dragging on for more than two decades and that "will go up", says Isabel Marquès, Terrassa's Síndica de Greuges (similar to the Ombudsperson) and member of the Fòrum de Síndics Locals (Forum of Local Ombudspeople), who points out the problem is due to the lack of housing at an appropriate price, in connection with today's meagre salaries. However, the initial problem is that access to the regularization of documentation has been closed to many of the residents of these substandard homes, as a result of State and European policies that punish the right to migrate and push thousands of people "into irregularity, precariousness, exclusion or police harassment", according to a statement by SOS Racism.

The power to grant a residence permit is a state competence, but, as the Terrassa mayor's office points out, migrants also face many obstacles in the municipalities due to the refusal of many town halls to register neighbours who do not have a fixed address, despite the fact that the legislation is very clear and points out the right and duty to do so.

This is the perverse circle that "invisibilizes" thousands of people who cannot access basic rights such as education for their children, health care or social housing, Marquès criticizes. "It's not about the council giving out a flat, but it should accompany the person to find a decent place, give them rights", he stresses, and rejects that administrations negate their responsibilities and leave a "power vacuum". In this sense, he also points out that "the Generalitat has a lot to say" and that it cannot hide behind its powers, because it has to seek the capacity to create social housing exchanges to which it can refer those who need it, or support town councils.

Closing their eyes

Sílvia Torralba has been frequenting warehouses and settlements in Barcelona for 15 years through Amics del Moviment Quart Món. She explains that these are places with a "great diversity of people and situations" - families with children, migrants in an irregular situation or adults alone in extreme poverty - that do not always receive a differentiated response. The activist regrets that the vast majority of the municipalities treat the users as if they were "just passing through" and avoid making medium and long-term policies by waiting for them to leave.

The reality is that a settlement ends when there is a "forced eviction" and, as a rule, the residents look for other similar places, even if it means changing municipalities. In the metropolitan area, the change is imperceptible due to the great connectivity and the urban continuum, so the problem moves from one territory to another but does not disappear, Jordi Mir Garcia - professor of humanities at the UPF - sumps up, for whom homelessness, like the crisis of migratory reception, is the face of "human rights violations", so he does not believe that it can be tackled with local solutions either.

As a mantra, experts and social entities point out that the basis for outlining a dignified way out is housing. "Economic aid stops the blow, but it is not transformative", says Torralba. The Taula del Tercer Sector (Third Sector Committee) reminds us that the supply of social housing is almost eight times lower than the European average (2% compared to 15%), and they also demand that the guaranteed income of citizens does not exclude other forms of aid. For its part, Caritas complains that those who do not have a legal residence permit cannot even enter the social housing list.

The mayor of Badalona, Xavier Garcia Albiol, has talked of responsibility issues and pointed directly at the residents of the warehouse, claiming problems of "coexistence" with the rest of the neighborhood. For Professor Mir Garcia, the label of pointing them out "no longer as irregulars, but as illegal occupants" is dangerous, because it "sends out a message of stigmatisation" of an entire group, ignoring that this is a global and complex situation. The Ombudsperson Marquès explains that in some conflicts between residents of warehouses and conventional flats, the first services that appear are those of "the police". SOS Racism has accused the Badalonese mayor of being a "necessary accomplice" to the tragedy "by action or omission" and has lamented that human rights have become a "privilege".