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ARGENTINA | 04-04-2020 11:48

Living on the streets during a nationwide lockdown

Most Argentines are staying home, but some have nowhere to go. For the homeless of Buenos Aires during the coronavirus pandemic, this is a very different version of isolation.

The government’s decree is clear enough – blanket isolation until mid-April. Yet there are thousands of people in Argentina with nowhere to go.

In a country where over a third of the population lives in poverty, it’s difficult for those living rough to protect themselves from a sanitary crisis.

Few people are to be seen in the streets of Buenos Aires, which has been virtually empty since President Alberto Fernández announced a lockdown of the entire country from March 20 to 31, later extended to April 12.

Some sleep in the doorways of banks and shops. They say that shelters are overcrowded. Some of them denounce police brutality, saying they have been moved on from the spot in the city where they have often lived for years.

AT THE OBELISK

Almost a year ago, Richard Marcelo assembled a “ranchada” (local slang for an improvised shack or shed) for a group of people, just metres away from the capital’s famed Obelisco.

“We’re trying to get by as best we can,” he says, surrounded by piles of cardboard and mattresses. He sleeps here along with three other people.

“Now we can no longer sell cardboard,” explains Richard, a Uruguayan who has spent six of the last 45 years in the street. He says that his group’s relationship with the police has been good up to now.

He says he’s not afraid of being infected. “We’re afraid of hunger and of nothing else, not even coronavirus.”

Emilio Sebastián Barcia,28, is the newest member of the group. He’s been on the streets for three months, after losing his job as a cook.

“At first I installed myself in front [of my old workplace]. I was desperate and hungry and from there I got to know this group. Now with everything going on around coronavirus, if you were to leave me alone in the corner, I would die.”

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, City Hall has accelerated its plans to transfer the homeless to other refuges such as sporting centres – three have been equipped – or hotels alongside the existing shelters. The authorities assure that around 700 people have already been taken off the streets, but that still leaves thousands more.

According to official data, there were 1,146 street people in Buenos Aires last year.

But, according to a recent recount by social and political organisations, the number of homeless has risen to 7,521 in Argentina’s capital.

That should not come as a surprise in a country which closed out last year with 35.5 percent below the poverty line, of whom eight percent are destitute.

“We do not want anyone to be left on the street before the arrival of the coronavirus spike [in mid-April],” said Alejandro Amor, the City’s ombudsman, in charge of defending people’s rights.

AT PLAZA SAN MARTÍN

For around four years, Edgardo Gabriel Villalba, 37, has been living with his two friends Claudio and Dani in Plaza San Martín, close to the monument paying tribute to the liberator of Argentina, Chile and Peru.

“I became homeless because of a disease, namely AIDS,” he recounts.

Edgardo feels lost among the advice and government slogans.

“They never explained to us what we have to do... the police come along and chase you away,” he says, showing off bruises he says were a result of police blows.

The trio frequently go to the Corazón Eucarístico de Jesús Church, just a few metres away, to pick up a daily plate of food. But sometimes they don’t arrive in time and sometimes there’s not enough food.

From there “we go to the dumpsters,” he says. “Yesterday we ate some rotten, stinking luncheon meat but we hadn’t eaten for several days. We washed it and ate it.”

Villalba knows that the government runs temporary shelters but he is afraid of being shut in with other people and becoming more vulnerable to contagion.

“I’ve survived AIDS but now I’m really scared of coronavirus.”

AT THE CASA ROSADA

María doesn’t want to reveal her surname. She has been living on the streets for years, glued to the Banco Santander building next to Plaza de Mayo, with the Casa Rosada presidential seat in sight.

She is almost always seen reading. Although it is increasingly difficult to find food, she says she is happy to have all this space just for herself.

“I enjoy solitude greatly. For me that’s the nicest thing about coronavirus,” she says.

She sits surrounded by her two dogs and various books. And she refuses to hear anything of a shelter. “I couldn’t abandon my animals,” she explains.

by MARIA LORENTE, AFP

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