Supporting the homeless in Spain: Spanish Red Cross volunteers offer a warm embrace on cold winter nights
Four candles on a rickety table are the only heating and lighting in the makeshift home of Sonia and José Antonio, the four walls around them seemingly held up by a miracle As lighting, the candles do their job, at least, for the tiny living space. As heating, the candles don’t cut it: a cold night of 6 degrees both outside, and inside. The repeated dry coughs of 38-year-old Sonia are just one consequence of the lack of heat. Of the kind of cold that gets into your bones. “They should give her a VIP card at the hospital,” jokes José Antonio, as he lists her lung ailments. They’ve been a couple for four years, almost as long as they’ve lived between these four walls in the middle of a site that was once an important truck factory on the outskirts of Alcalá de Henares, Madrid. Tonight, like so many others, they are visited by Juani and Basilio, two volunteers from the Spanish Red Cross homeless care teams. They have brought some food, as the two mastiff puppies, who keep looking for cuddles from the volunteers, can sense. "Come on, get down from there," José Antonio scolds one of them, "you don't have to be cuddly, you have to defend the home," he laments. A generator was recently stolen from them, and with it, their heat. The Red Cross volunteers advise the couple on some of the assistance they can offer and other administrative procedures, but, above all, they share their time. "Our main job is to listen, to get them to open up. Imagine that you live alone, in the street, and you have no one to talk to from the moment you get up until the moment you go to bed," says Basilio, a former military man, who is now in his second year as a volunteer in the homeless care programme. Juani and Basilio's route next takes them to the unfinished changing rooms of a sports facility in the area. There are no windows, no doors, no electricity, no water. The current ‘tenant’, Javier, arrives shortly after by bicycle. By the light of mobile phones, walking among the rubble, you can see broken mattresses, discarded clothes and empty food cans. But the laughter begins. Javier has found himself a new girlfriend, and proudly shows pictures of her off to volunteers Juani and Basilio on his mobile phone. He is very happy with her. His last girlfriend had beat him. "That's the main problem, the dependencies that many of the people we work with carry with them and the violence that accompanies them", Basilio points out. Juani and Basilio's nocturnal route then takes them to an old warehouse in an industrial estate in Alcalá. There they will have another laugh and a few jokes with 68-year-old Moisa, of Romanian origin. Moisa has managed to turn the old warehouse into something resembling a home. He even has a television set on which he watches cowboy movies, the old-fashioned kind that he likes. As he lights up a cigarette, under the disapproving gaze of Juani and Basilio, they begin to talk about the divine and the human and quickly move on from politics to lighter subjects, such as the singer Carla Bruni. After dropping off some food, Basilio and Juani begin the journey back to the Red Cross headquarters in Alcalá. They feel a bit sad, they say. They recently lost a friend from the street. A ‘family member’, they call him. Because, to them, they are all like family. "At least he didn't die in the street, they were able to take him to the hospital and he passed away in a bed," Basilio stresses. "In spite of everything, we have to go on, we can't take our problems home and let the situations we live through break us; I can help if I'm well, if I smile", says Juani, who has spent time on sick leave in the past when another person he was supporting passed away. Comprehensive support for the homeless Juani and Basilio are two of the more than 5,000 Spanish Red Cross volunteers who work with homeless people in Spain. The Spanish Red Cross runs 77 Social Emergency Units (UES) for this purpose in nearly 40 provinces. In addition, they offer 800 places in temporary accommodation for critical moments and run 31 day centres in which they can offer showers, laundry or canteen services when needed. As part of a wider network of organisations providing support to homeless people, they can also refer or transport people who need help to other accommodation or services as needed. "The aim of our work is not only to provide basic goods such as food, shelter and hygiene products, but also to work for the social inclusion of homeless people," says Raquel Zafra, head of the programme in Alcalá de Henares. "Our aim is always for people to go to different spaces where we can provide more in-depth support in the form of social care, monitoring and accompaniment, information and guidance, mediation, or training activities", stresses Zafra. Through the Social Emergency Units, the Spanish Red Cross assisted more than 18,000 people in 2022.