Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Another Day In Paradise: Homelessness

He had a pretty impressive suntan. His feet, open to the elements thanks to the flip-flops, were a mahogany colour. He wasn't doing anything. Just sitting there on a wall by the Eroski supermarket in Can Picafort. His company was a plastic bag. Inside which was a bottle. I knew who he was. Or at least he fit the description. He's the German who lives in an abandoned house. To be more accurate, a house that the family which owns it cannot agree as to what to do with it. Somehow, he had come to be living there. When a member of the family had been to the house, she had been shocked to find it inhabited. Along with all the junk that had come to be stored in it was this German, together with no electricity and no water.

He wasn't doing any harm, so he stayed on. Maybe it was an advantage. Someone to watch over the place. To stop youths getting in. Having a "botellón", taking drugs. It didn't really matter how he had come to be in the house. He couldn't exactly go back. Back to Germany, that is. His passport had long expired. He was a non-person. Time was when he used to work over in Alcúdia. But now he had no bike, and when the weather was bad that was a nightmare to use anyway. He might occasionally get some work around and about. Otherwise, he would wash in a bar in the morning. And in the evening he would be at another bar to take the odd coffee and a leak before bedtime. And at other times he would sit on a wall.

Outside a different Eroski, one in Alcúdia, a gaggle of the outer edges of society gathers to pass the time of day, to shout, to bring the dogs, to raise the plastic bags. Strictly speaking, it is an offence to drink alcohol on the streets. Sometimes they are a nuisance, but there's not trouble like that elsewhere: at the derelict, former nightspot palace of Es Fogueró, the imposingly mysterious ruin by the industrial estate in Alcúdia that gives a similar impression as to having been abandoned, despite its being new.

In Es Fogueró there was a body back in the summer. "El Gallego" was dead. He'd been killed, so the Guardia were to reveal. A brother and sister, also "residents" of the ruin, face a homicide charge. In the building where Julio Iglesias had once performed, the dance had stopped for the Galician. When you end the beguine.

It was a perishing late afternoon in January. Outside yet another Eroski. He was crouching in the walkway to the supermarket. You can forget just how cold it can get during a Mallorcan winter. A coin or a few. What does it take? How utterly merciless I had been. It would have taken very little. Little to shrug off a foul mood and a memory of the "aggressive begging" of London. Because his hadn't been.

While there isn't much overt evidence as to homelessness in places such as Alcúdia, it exists all the same. It is the lie to the nonsensically unthinking rote-speak of "this paradise island". Paradise found and paradise lost.

No one much talks about or wants to know about poverty and homelessness in Mallorca. It's not what the brochures would have you think about. The exact scale of homelessness is hard to put a finger on, in Mallorca and across Spain. Some town halls are now conducting censuses. What is reckoned is that a half of the homeless are foreigners. But not all are recent immigrants. The German has been in Can Picafort for years.

In addition to much low-paid employment in Mallorca, there is now the issue of reductions in assistance from the state. Compounding this are the increased costs of energy - electricity and butane both on the rise again. How many live in fuel poverty in Mallorca? A Mediterranean climate might make you believe such a thing couldn't exist. It does. In housing wholly inadequate in terms of insulation, draught exclusion and damp-coursing. Where the housing exists of course. Because not everyone's that lucky. So they end up on the streets and, in the case of Palma, have a council that wants to impound their consolatory alcohol.

Much of the help extended to the homeless comes through the offices of the Cruz Roja (Red Cross). In 2009 the level of help it gave in the Balearics rose by 38%. Back in 2007, the number of individuals either socially excluded or at risk of being so that it assisted was 697. The actual homeless figure it dealt with then amounted to 547 people. With the withdrawal of much state-based "ayuda", the 2009 percentage rise is unlikely to fall.

The numbers may not sound as though there is a crisis. But these scratch the surface of poverty and of those at the breadline. To whom you have to add the homeless. The soup kitchens of Mallorca have already announced a marked rise in "business" this autumn.

There is an unedifying aspect to Mallorca. It is one of real-estate division. In winter you can walk past the second homes, the villa rentals and hotels of Playa de Muro. You can repeat the exercise elsewhere. Empty. They aren't of course about to be opened up to the homeless. This isn't the point. What is, is the insult of so much land in non-productive use for so long a period. Through the winters.

At least in an abandoned house in Can Picafort, the German has a roof over his head.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

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