Words and Images by: Evander Pedersen, Jara Atienza and Montse Vila-Masana
In the second week of July 2016, Vincent and two other workers in a small bike and scooter shop in Barcelona were introduced to a new colleague. Over a couple of weeks, his new mate became part of the team that, next to Vincent, rented bikes and scooters to tourists in the Catalan city. That was until their colleague revealed his true identity; he wasn’t a new colleague, but a businessman trying to get a look into the company. Instead of injecting capital into the business, he wanted to hire his relatives, which meant that Vincent and the other workers would lose their jobs. But they’d not only lose their jobs but also lose their shelter, they all used to sleep in the shop.
A week later, the 49 year-old Vincent went from being an adventurous Londoner who had quit his nine-to-five job as an educator back in 2013 and bought a one-way ticket to Spain, to a homeless man in Barcelona. That July, Vincent became one of the 1,000 homeless people sleeping in the streets in Barcelona. Another 2,000 people tend to have a night shelter in hostels or social shelters. In the city, the number of homeless people has varied throughout the years. According to the recent study by Joan Uribe, Ines Marco and Albert Sales in The situation of homelessness in Barcelona -evolution and intervention policies, the number of those affected is a lot more stable since the growth that took place after the financial crisis of 2008 to 2011.
Barcelona is not a unique city when it comes to problems with homelessness. According to the Homeless World Cup Global Statistics, there are 100 million homeless people worldwide and almost 1.6 billion lacking adequate housing. In accordance with the Second Overview of Housing Exclusion in Europe report, published by the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless in March 2017, homelessness in Europe is rising alarmingly, except in Finland. The document remarks that young people are the most likely to be exposed to homelessness due to the elevated cost of apartments, which young people spend an average of 48 per cent of their salaries on.
In Spain, the number of homeless people vary between 23,000 and 40,000, depending on the study. In Barcelona, there are homeless people of all ages but the general profile of a homeless person is male, aged 31 to 51. Similar to Vincent’s case, little more than half of the homeless do not have any type of income. The main causes of homelessness worldwide are unemployment, poverty, migration, ageing, health problems, relationship issues and the lack of affordable housing for sale or for renting.
At the very beginning, being homeless was challenging for Vincent. During the first month he slept on the beach, but as it got colder he began to sleep inside cash points on cardboards without any sheets. In the beginning he didn’t know where to eat for free, so he only got something to eat when some of the other homeless people, with whom he shared shelter, offered him a piece of sandwich. “The worst thing was the pain in your stomach when you were hungry and there was no food. It was terrible,” says Vincent. Even though he found the first period challenging, Vincent was in good health condition and had a positive attitude, he had better conditions than many other homeless people, for example; alcoholics, drug addicts and the mentally ill. “Lots of people drink to make it easier, but that’s not the solution,” he warns.
Vincent has some examples to follow; his “digital heroes” who had crazy ideas and people didn’t bet on them until the ideas materialised, such as Henry Ford who developed the first automobile that middle-class Americans could afford. Vincent thinks social tools are made to help people get out of the streets, but one of the things that has surprised Vincent the most was the big group of homeless people who have their basic needs covered and prefer to live in the streets rather than working to get their own home. “They are getting food, they can live here for free, they can get clothes and they can wash themselves, so they can’t see why they need to work. I believe that I am made for more than this. The world is much bigger.”
About those that lack his motivation, Vincent thinks that, first, they should get rid of their alcohol and drug addiction to have a more positive attitude towards life. “If you are positive, you will attract the people, the resources and the opportunities that you need to grow.” That was exactly what happened when back in November he was introduced to Andrew Funk, the man behind the initiative Homeless Entrepreneurs. “During this time”, Vincent explains referring to when he slept on the street, “On one of the places I went to eat, I spoke to somebody that told me about Homeless Entrepreneurs. And I thought ‘okay, I’ll get in touch with that man, Andrew, and maybe he’ll find some strategies’”.
Homeless Entrepreneurs began 2015 as an initiative to help homeless people get off the street by getting jobs. It focuses on talent as a way out of homelessness, tells its founder Andrew Funk, an American who, for most of his life, has been working with people on personal and professional development. “We motivate the homeless by working by their sides and finding out what their talents are. We give them resources, tools, the right network and unconditional love, so they can advance,” says Andrew Funk. He thinks that everyone has a talent, because nobody was born on the street. “You are not talking about people that are completely useless, but people that probably had bad luck, poor environment or made some wrong decisions in life”.
Right now, Homeless Entrepreneurs is helping six homeless people get off the streets. One of them is Daniel, a former photojournalist, who right now works 10 hours per month as a community manager. At the same time, he is working on a project called Shelters with Names, where he takes pictures of homeless people’s homes and tells their stories. Another homeless entrepreneur is Paco who just got a full-time job as a web developer. If a homeless person gets a full-time job thanks to Homeless Entrepreneurs, like Paco, they have to donate 10 per cent of their salary to the Homeless Entrepreneurs for the first six months. This money will then be reinvested in helping the person with their talents. Since Paco likes rapping, the money is now used to help him creating a rap album.
The idea of work as a way out of homelessness is the most effective one because, “Providing food and clothing does not change anything”, thinks Andrew Funk. “There are no naked people walking around in Barcelona, and nobody is starving, because the social lunch rooms provide food for them. A lot of people like to help homeless people by doing things that really don’t help. Because if people don’t get actively involved in society again, then you are just maintaining their situation. They need to work for it, in my opinion, so they can pay for these things, instead of society giving them everything for nothing.”
Homeless is a word which speaks for itself. That’s why the social policy model Housing First wants to help people who sleep in the street by erasing the ‘less’ from ‘homeless’. In the 1990s, organisation Pathways to Housing created the model Housing First which was born from the question; would the homeless improve their situation if they first have their own house? After testing the model it had great success and was rapidly incorporated in many European countries like in Portugal, Finland and France.
Seven Spanish cities have implemented the innovative model, and Barcelona is one of the pioneers. In 2014, the Barcelona City Council together with the NGO RAIS Fundación started a programme named Habitat, based in the Housing First model. But Habitat isn’t about giving the homeless a shared flat or a room in a hostel, it guarantees them their own permanent place to live.
However, this programme is only available to the homeless who are in the worst conditions. Before giving a residence, the City Council analyses the situation of each person. He or she must have been living in the street for a long time, and must have a disability, addiction or mental problem. In addition, people who enter the Habitat programme must follow certain rules; accepting a visit once a week by a volunteer of the organisation, give the organisation 30 per cent of their income if they have one, and follow the basic cohabitation rules. After establishing them in a home of their own there is still work to do; such as improving their lives by helping them to socialise, to take care of their own health and to find or maintain jobs.
Many studies point out that implementing the Housing First model would reduce significantly the public cost of social services. According to the Spanish Statistical Office, in Spain a room in a hostel costs an average of €39 per day, while a one-person apartment with all the basic needs included, costs €34 euros per day. Without mentioning that the use of sanitary emergencies, police interventions, doctor visits, the number of ambulances and so on is also reduced.
The philosophy behind the the Housing First model and Homeless Entrepreneurs model is very different as they’re addressed to different kinds of people. Housing First is addressed to people in very raw conditions, while the work of Andrew Funk’s association is addressed to those people who can work themselves. Despite the differences, Andrew Funk is surprised that the City Council and other homeless associations in Barcelona see Homeless Entrepreneurs as an opponent instead of a new team-mate in the field.
“The biggest surprise is that we are getting blocked by other associations that are supposed to be helping homeless people. They see us as competitors in the sector. But there is public money behind those other initiatives, maybe that’s why they create obstacles for new associations like ours that is trying to add value.”
Despite the obstacles, the association is developing every day. Now, they have six ‘Homeless Entrepreneurs’, and Andrew Funk says that if the organisation continues to grow at the same rate, the number of ‘Homeless Entrepreneurs’ will double every six month. Andrew Funk believes it’s possible to end homelessness in Barcelona, even though he admits that it’s a slow process in the beginning.
“A lot of people on the street are not convinced yet about working, because they know they can survive without doing so, so we have to show them that their lives will actually improve if they work. When they see their friends leaving the street for a happier life, they hopefully begin to consider following the same steps”.
The way Homeless Entrepreneurs can make other homeless people “jealous” is by using social media, which Andrew Funk calls “essential” to their success. Therefore, the results of all donations to Homeless Entrepreneur are posted on social media like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. For example, if a Homeless Entrepreneur receives a donation so he or she can travel without getting a fine, they post a picture of their T-10 ticket, so people can see that even small donations can make a difference.
Since Vincent and Andrew Funk met each other for the first time back in November, Vincent has grown a lot, but he’s still homeless and lives in temporary accommodation at Sant Joan de Déu, which he must leave in five weeks. Nevertheless, he’s still very optimistic about his future. He teaches English a few hours per month and he’s also writing two books; 28 Ways to Improve Your English and 28 Ways to Improve Your Life, where he’ll tell short stories from the streets.
“Writing is an opportunity to show the people of Barcelona that these Homeless Entrepreneurs really grow. Look at where they started, and where they are now. When I publish the book, I want to show people that I’m an example to follow.” Vincent’s expectation is that he will end his homelessness in about three months. But even if he succeeds, he’s still going to keep working with Homeless Entrepreneurs because he wants to give something back to the association that gave him so much.
“Getting off the streets has definitely something to do with a frame of mind, so if you don’t have someone encouraging you, your situation is not going to change. For me, the future is bright and I have the support that I need. I grow every day.”