14ymedio, Havana, 15 August 2019 — An extensive report published on Thursday on the Cubadebate site addresses a topic taboo, to date, in the official press of the Island. With testimonies, figures and specialists’ opinions , the article recognizes the existence of “wanderers” or homeless people in the country, especially in the city of Havana.
For decades, articles on homeless people have been published exclusively in the independent press. Commonly, the authorities do not provide figures on the incidence of the problem and often official voices criticize the appearance on social networks of images of beggars that “distort the image of Cuba.”
However, Alejandro García, a psychiatrist and head of the Department of Mental Health of Centro Habana, confirmed to Cubadebate that he has been working with people living on the streets for more than 16 years and clarifies that “the destitute or wanderers, the name we use to define them is not the most relevant.”
“I have never been able to completely rehabilitate a person with this disorder,” adds the doctor, who says that the majority of Cuban wanderers are of working age and that “alcoholism is one of the most frequent causes for falling into this behavior.”
Around the tourist areas, in the most central streets of the cities and in the vicinity of markets it is common to find these homeless, most of the time asking for alms, with ragged and dirty clothes or with religious images accompanied by a container where passersby can place some coins.
“The majority are people who lost their homes, their families, their jobs, and end up living on the street without commitments or a sense of belonging anywhere,” Garcia explains.
For the psychiatrist, one of the great difficulties in helping these needy people is that “they refuse to institutionalize themselves, to establish a classic social life, that is, to live in a family, to accept social norms and there comes a legal, ethical and social conflict, because you can’t force a person to stay home.”
The article includes several testimonies citing the reasons that have taken these wanderers to the streets. From an HIV patient who does not have a home, to a woman who says that when her husband left she stopped liking her home and now prefers to sleep in front of the Capitol building.
During the decades of the 60s and 80s, the so-called Idler Law was in force in Cuba and penalized those who did not study or work. Citizens who were prosecuted for this crime were forced to take a job, generally in agricultural work, street cleaning and other occupations that most rejected because of the difficulty of the work and the low salary.
With the arrival of the crisis of the 90s and the appearance of an incipient private sector, the State could no longer guarantee a job for every person of working age and the legislation was repealed, one of the reasons that the report points to as a trigger for the increase in the number of homeless individuals who roam the streets.
Garcia references several initiatives — the Caballero de Paris project is one example — which have been created to focus attention on these homeless people. In 2015, an action protocol was established in the capital for admission, diagnosis, care and social reintegration, which has not achieved its objectives due to the distrust of many of the wanderers.
For his part, Ramón González, an official of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security of the Old Havana municipality, recognizes that Havana is “the Cuban province where there are the most wanderers in the country. Every day at nine in the morning a bus leaves, paid for by the labor department, to pick up those people.”
The bus circulates through the main streets of three municipalities of the city: Old Havana, Central Havana, and Plaza of the Revolution, and then heads towards the Social Protection Center known as Las Guásimas, just outside the city. But, along the way, many destitute people hide to avoid being caught.
Frequently the independent press denounces the forced collection of wanderers, clandestine vendors and people with psychiatric disorders when some official visit is passing through the area where they circulate or spend the night.
González, however, believes that “due to the ignorance generated around the program, some of the citizens who see the bus collecting people, imagine that we will imprison them. Especially since, sometimes, we have to adopt verbally aggressive behavior, but some are capable of attacking us.”
The bus collects around 30 people daily to transfer them to Las Guásimas. Some stay for a while in the center but others escape at the first opportunity to return to the streets.
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