This homeless man has become an inspiration for the dozens of participants of the Hogar de Cristo Hospice in the city of Chillán, after taking the entrance exam to higher education and being admitted to the AIEP Professional Institute.
Richard (57) assures that, after his admission to prison 30 years ago, a decline in his life began. Until that day, he was an ordinary student of auditing at the University of Valparaiso, but bad meetings led him to commit various crimes in order to get drugs.
More than three decades later, in Chillán, Richard is a new man who has no problems with the law. "And that's no small thing, the easy life attracts, my friend, the quick bucks, the fast life. Today I am ashamed, but for years I was a swindler, I embezzled checks, look how ugly.
-Do you miss anything from that life?
-Now that I see my friends as zombies, lying in the street, I reflect myself in them and it saddens me, how sad life can be when you are not given second chances.
Due to the first AFP withdrawal (pension funds), in 2020, Richard relapsed into drugs, after years of being sober. "It made me lousy, because I spent everything on base paste, alcohol, cocaine, everything bad in society. In the end, I ended up in a shelter in San Carlos, with nothing but the clothes on my back."
-How did you get out of it?
-Get out? I still deal with the street, but at that time it was worse.
After withdrawing the second withdrawal, Richard decided to stay teetotal: he bought a van to start a delivery business, but the young man he hired to drive the car also smoked cocaine paste and ended up falling back into addiction with him and lost everything again.
-What led you to drugs?
-If I think about it, problematic consumption was always naturalized in my life, with friends, with my father. It's like inhibiting reality, which in my case is sleeping under a bridge, committing crimes, being a disgrace to the family, lying, being cold at night.
After his last relapse, in 2021, Richard began a journey through different shelters, squares and under bridges in Ñuble. Until one day, that nomadic life would come to an end thanks to Hogar de Cristo volunteers. "It was just at a turning point that they came to give me a second chance. I don't think I would be alive if they hadn't looked for me or who knows what I would be up to, in the street that happens and you have two choices: either you end up dead or in jail.
After moving to Hogar de Cristo, Richard began a rehabilitation plan that has kept him sober for more than a year. His main motivation is "not to disappoint God, myself and my children, who have started talking to me again since I got sober. That's why I need to get ahead and not relapse".
THE FORMULA FOR LIFE
Dreams are there to be fulfilled, no matter how much effort and time you have to invest in achieving them. Just ask Richard, who, at 57 years old, decided to start studying again, to take the entrance exam to higher education. "I realized that there is no age to finish things, and if I want to get ahead, I need to finish what I left out because of drugs and crime".
When he mentioned this initiative at the hospice, a Hogar de Cristo volunteer, Cristián (29), who is studying pedagogy at the Universidad del Biobío, decided to help him: "We met to study once a week, but since Richard has a talent for mathematics, he only needed to refresh his knowledge and learn new formulas, processes and mathematical methods; he had plenty of the rest.
-What did this experience mean to you?
-We went beyond mathematics; in the end, we bonded as people and as human beings. I did not come to teach him thinking that he was a "person who had been on the street", on the contrary, he was for me a student like any other.
The effort paid off and in March 2023 Richard will begin his technical studies in business administration at the AIEP Professional Institute.
"Who says miracles don't exist? Less than a year ago I was in a very bad way, with no direction, but with effort and the support of other people, I am going to get ahead with my studies and be someone good in life", concludes Richard, proudly.
Every week our volunteers make social routes in the different sectors of the commune, in search of the most excluded. A very volatile population and, therefore, difficult to locate. They explain that "it seems" that there are always the same people, but it is not so: the face of the most vulnerable is changing due to the explosive phenomenon of migration, which has increased the presence of children, adolescents and mothers in street situations in the north of Chile.
Now the volunteers must provide quick help: delivering food, blankets, medical care to migrant families, in transit and in tents in the center, although there are also others who take different routes, settling in parks and streets on the periphery.
"The children arrive with symptoms of malnutrition, dog bites, hypothermia, sunstroke or dehydration. Many no longer speak, look at the ground, don't want to play, distrust everyone," say the volunteers, shocked.
The data from the Casen 2020 Survey are revealing. Between 2017 and 2020, poverty in Chile affected migrants more, reaching 17% of this population in 2020, however, among them there are three groups even more punished: women, children and adolescents; and those who live in the northern part of the country.
For this reason, we consider three essential axes to address this unfortunate reality: the need for shelters for people who have nowhere to stay, the regularization of their papers and, most difficult, a definitive solution, which necessarily involves housing.
Now, in the emergency and with the health crisis caused by COVID-19 at a lower intensity, our volunteers are reorganizing throughout Chile to reactivate the Street Routes that were suspended or very limited due to the pandemic. We know that these are palliative initiatives of the problem, but necessary, sometimes key to avoid a death due to hypothermia or other extreme reasons.
And they are also central because they raise awareness and mobilize the organized civil society to show the invisible, the ghosts of the street, who have multiplied in this complex time with the aggravating factor that they are foreigners. And that, in the eyes of many, amplifies the stigma that people in street situations carry.
Can you imagine living for half a century where the night catches you? This was the daily life of the current resident of the Hogar de Cristo Transitional Shelter in San Bernardo. He was cold, hungry, discriminated against, but the freedom that the street gave him was his greatest treasure. Here he tells us, in summary, what it was like to spend half a century outdoors.
-I've been living on the street since I was 11 years old, that tells you everything. My father threw me out of the house because my mother died half an hour after I was born. According to him, I was to blame for the death of his wife, my mother.
This is how Jorge (67) begins telling his story of half a century outdoors. Today he lives in the Hogar de Cristo shelter located in San Bernardo; he is in a wheelchair due to arthrosis and arthritis affecting his knees. There, from a space that gives him warmth, bed, food and roof, with a serene voice and a sweet smile, he recalls his thousand and one stories of his half century of life walking and sleeping in various corners of Chile.
"I went through everything. Hardship, sadness, hunger, cold. When I go to a grocery store and I see a child saying: 'Mommy, I want a candy' and they throw themselves on the floor...', I feel sorry for them! I say to the lady: 'Give the child a candy, I'll pay for it', because I imagine myself in a street situation. Going to a grocery store asking for a piece of bread, a little something to eat," he says.
According to Hogar de Cristo's latest estimates, 19,000 people live on the streets in the country, most of them in the Metropolitan Region. During 2021, 9,977 people went through one of the 84 programs that the foundation has for this population in the country. According to the Ministry of Social Development, 91% live alone, as Jorge once was. Forty-four years old is the average age of those who live in these conditions, but 41% indicated that their first experience occurred before the age of 18.
Jorge was always alone. The street changed his character, took away his childhood, but not his heart. "I didn't want to know anyone, not even my siblings," he says. Precisely, he never heard from his family again. "My brothers did not exist. On top of that, my father put it in their heads that I was not their brother," he says.
"I had a puppy but then I threw it away because I felt sorry for it. I said to myself, 'I'm suffering and this poor little animal. I didn't have enough to feed it. So I wanted it to be free and look elsewhere. The dogs are also cold, wet, sleeping in the street just like me. I would set up my rucksacks in a safe place, where there were no other people. Always alone. Next to trees," says Jorge about living on the street, in the rucos (very precarious house), those small houses made of rubble. Precisely, he says that he collected his "walls" from the dumps. "I made them with pallets, a square with two pallets high. And when I left, I would leave it there, for someone else who needed it. Sometimes I slept in the sewers of the Mapocho. I would put pallets there and sleep, with all the water under me.
In 2009 Hogar de Cristo identified the existence of a specific group of people over 60 years of age, who regularly participated in the hospices and who, due to their health, fragility and dependence, required specialized and permanent support. This was the result of the deterioration of the time spent on the street, the dissociation with social and health networks and, in some cases, the presence of problematic consumption of alcohol or other drugs, making them a highly vulnerable population. It is from this reality that the foundation implements the "Shelter Houses" as an alternative for this group of elderly people, who require support that goes beyond an emergency service. One of them is the one in San Bernardo, where Jorge lives. He can stay there for an indefinite period of time, having a roof, bed, food and all kinds of care.
"I lived on the street until I was 60 years old. After that I only stayed in shelters. Because when there was a big snowstorm here, I was still on the street and my ruco - was just three sheets of zinc. I was in Casas Viejas, in Puente Alto, next to the river. That was my last ruco. They came three times to look for me from a shelter, but I, the stubborn one, said no, no and no".
-Why didn't you want to leave?
-For freedom. On the street I would get up and go wherever I wanted. In a shelter it wasn't going to be the same. It was being locked up and that's what I didn't like. They controlled everything, the time to go to bed, to get up, and that's what I didn't like. I am a free soul. I wanted to go to the lodge when I woke up and I saw a space like that no more than the zinc sheet that had been left without snow and everything else with snow. I looked and thought, 'how am I going to get out of here?' It was very cold. The Hogar de Cristo people came and said, 'Are you going with us?' I said yes right away. I got there and they put a stove, coffee, they were worried about me. They took me to the doctor in case something happened to me because of the humidity from the snow. But I had nothing. I really am a tough person. Fifty years on the street, all my life....
A few days ago, a guest of Hogar de Cristo's hospice in Punta Arenas was assaulted in the street. His wheelchair and his few belongings were stolen. The terrible thing about these events is that those who are eternally assaulted by society, normalize it and live accustomed to being beaten. In these lines we tell you about what happened in the capital of the Magallanes region and the discrimination against this group of people.
"It is not frequent, but it is not new either", says Álvaro Rondón, head of territorial operations in Magallanes, about the beating and robbery that affected Juan, a guest of the Hogar de Cristo hospice in Punta Arenas. According to the newspaper La Prensa Austral, he was allegedly beaten in the face and, as if that were not enough, his wheelchair, jacket and bag of food were taken.
Nursing technician Dante Levicán has been working at the Hogar de Cristo hospice in Punta Arenas for eight years. From his experience, he says that the team learns of assaults on the residents through third parties, other residents, or because the police arrive to inform them or drop them off. Often, those affected do not tell what happened because they normalize it. She says: "It often happens that they are beaten. It even happens between themselves and people who hang around the areas where they roam, which is usually on the outskirts of the city center or the area where the bars are. They approach people who also have consumption problems or take advantage of them because they are more vulnerable".
According to the Ministry of Social Development, in the Magallanes region, about 175 people live on the streets. Although the figure is low, considering the more than 16 thousand at national level, it is worrying considering the inhospitable climate of Punta Arenas and other cities in the region.
"They are not seen because they are scattered, but they are also invisible because people avoid them. They avoid passing by the place where there is a conflict with homeless people and do not go to intercede. I imagine it is to avoid being involved in a fight. It happens a lot. They don't even look at them. Besides, they normalize some situations," says Dante, who takes care of 30 homeless men at the hospice.
Álvaro Rondón reflects on this case and the historical aggressions against homeless people: "As a society we have not managed to integrate them. On the contrary, what we have done is to exclude citizens like us, generating types of violence and customs that do little to help their inclusion. We have multiple examples, not only in Magallanes. The issue is that these aggressions are installed as a habitual mode of conduct and the most minimal notion of human dignity is lost. There are complex cultural canons in them, diverse, that are mixed not only with violence, exclusion, but also with habits of disrespect".
JOHN IS OK
Juan uses a wheelchair due to cognitive impairment and paresthesia that reduce his mobility. On the day of the beating, he was taken by his classmates to the hospice and Carabineros brought him back his chair.
"There are certain canons in the street of institutional violence, of gender, and we try to transmit to the hospice community that here inside is a space where we take care of ourselves, but that there is a street where they suffer assaults. The call we make is: approach a person in a street situation, look them in the eyes, ask them what their name is, tell them your name, and you will see that you will find a person like you, like me, like anyone else, who due to certain circumstances of life finds themselves in a difficult, complex situation of exclusion. By violating and discriminating, what you are doing is generating double marginalization. Start integrating, break that circle of permanent exclusion and give yourself the joy of meeting a person who has a lot to say and from whom you can learn", advises Álvaro Rondón.
-Is there more justice today for people on the street when they are assaulted?
-There are glimpses of advances in justice, of recognition of the rights of people even when they are in street situations, because they are subjects of rights. We know stories where the minimum rights are not recognized, but there are advances in that sense. In Juan's case, there was a certain level of reinstatement. They took his things, his injuries were confirmed, there was an associated procedure, the aggressor was arrested and brought to justice, which is what one would expect, but that does not always happen. This is an example that it did work and gives us hope that this is changing. However, the victim himself tended to minimize the event, which is terrible.
ALEX VALENZUELA: "THE HOSTEL FOR PEOPLE LIVING ON THE STREET IS THE LAST DOOR THAT A PERSON SHOULD KNOCK"
The head of the largest hostel for men living on the streets in the country, Alex Valenzuela, dispels myths regarding the people who come to spend the night in this place: “They are not here because they want to, but because they have no other place. This is the last door that a person should knock, first there are networks, family and friends, and when there is nothing left, we are the Hogar de Cristo”.
In his 22 years of experience working at the Hospedería Padre Álvaro Lavín del Hogar de Cristo, located in the traditional Yungay neighborhood in the center of the capital, Mario Alexis Valenzuela (49), has been privileged witness of changes in social policies and mainly in the view that people have on the street.
“I think that progress has been made, but it happens to us that there is this kind of game of government changes that makes progress in a good street project go backwards and all good ideas stagnate. There is a desire to want to improve in public institutions but many times it is only visualized in winter. The good thing is that our Foundation has a comprehensive look and has been concerned with having better teams, delivering the necessary training to all of us who work here. "
His own history is marked by an experience of overcoming - the same that he has seen in many of the users he has met - in which he has taken advantage of each and every one of the possibilities that Hogar de Cristo has given him: “It is something that I am personally grateful and for that I always motivate my colleagues to also receive training, because it is necessary ”.
Alex was 26 years old and only a quarter of a half when he arrived at the inn in 1996 for a two-day replacement. “As soon as a vacancy was created, in 1998, I applied and was hired as an assistant, a job I did for a decade. Hogar de Cristo offered me a scholarship to study drug addiction administration technician at the Central University and I happily accepted because I wanted to learn more and improve myself. I graduated and then became the coordinator of the hostel and together with my boss, Vilma Gálvez, I learned everything I know about street work, I fell in love with my job ”.
It has been exactly four years since Alex replaced her as her head when she assumed a new position at the foundation. Since then, he has not seen his life anywhere else: "It is a challenging, motivating problem, every day you learn new things and my colleagues, like me, are very committed to the people we serve every day" , He says.
WANTING AND COMMITTING TO THE OTHER
Remember that in 2011, the Ministry of Social Development began with the Noche Digna program and the Winter Plan to prevent people living on the streets from dying of cold during the winter, which is why shelters were set up, some very massive like the one in Víctor Jara Stadium, with capacity for 350 people a day. Alex says that everyone entered "in a natural state"; that is to say, with a lot of consumption and he was in charge of 20 monitors.
“It was a very exhausting job. I remember that in my first shelter I was working 86 days out of a total of 90 that was enabled. From four in the afternoon until three in the morning. This experience helped me to understand how important our mission is, that of Hogar de Cristo, of loving and committing ourselves to the other. For me it was an excellent school, because I understood the dynamics of the street situation in a deeper way. There are those who have the wrong perception that they like to live on the streets, that they do not want to work and that they want everything for free. Hostels and boarding houses have taught me that much more work is required for the person to suspend, rather than overcome the street situation ”.
-Are there any success stories?
-Unfortunately in this area we do not have all the feedback that we would like with the people who have been in the hostel, but I have seen many with whom I have come across throughout life who today are super well and suddenly they come to see us. Cases of people who have recovered their families and their work
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