Uncovered: Chile's homeless crisis

(Originally published by Equal Times)
Translations: Español | Francais

It is early evening in central Santiago, and as the city’s workforce bustles home after another busy day, a small group of tired men gathers outside an old university building. These workers are less fortunate than their colleagues in that they have no home to go to, and are preparing to spend the night sleeping on the streets. 

There are currently around 12,000 homeless people in Chile, including 6000 in the capital and 785 children. According to a study conducted by the Ministry for Social Development in 2011, 77% have jobs, yet struggle to afford the cost of accommodation in one of South America’s most economically developed nations.   

Among the group is 50-year-old Raul Albarca, who explains that while many of his homeless friends work, most of them simply don’t earn enough to make ends meet: “Minimum wage in Chile is a disgrace – it’s around 193,000 pesos (USD$410) a month. The reality in Chile is that it’s impossible to live on that salary,” he asserts angrily. His friend Gonzalo has lived on the streets on and off for six years after becoming estranged from his family: “Right now I have a job with a salary working in a factory,” he says, “I save up during the summer by living on the streets so I can afford to rent somewhere in winter.”

It’s a wise strategy. Every winter (June – September) dozens of homeless people die in Santiago as a result of freezing temperatures which can reach as low as -8°C. Last winter claimed at least 20 victims forcing President Sebastian Piñera’s government to deliver a public statement insisting it would do everything possible to address the problem. “We have to work very hard on early prevention [of homelessness],” said the then Undersecretary of the Ministry of Social Development, Arellano Schmidt, before unveiling ‘Plan Calle’ – a $7bn per year project aimed at getting people off the streets.

Since then numerous homeless centres have been set up around the country which the government claims will provide shelter during the cold, and professional training for those in need of better jobs. Yet more than eight months on, and with only four to go until winter, the sense on the streets is that little has really changed. It’s a sentiment which is shared by Ignacio Eissmann, one of Chile’s leading academics specialising in poverty and development.

Eissmann is a professor at Alberto Hurtado University and director of Moviliza, an NGO which provides support for the homeless. He argues that the government´s 2011 report on Chile’s homeless crisis is misleading: “You have to read the survey very carefully” he says, “They claim 77% have jobs but if you actually look at the type of work they are doing you see the majority have no formal contract and are earning very little money.”

According to Eissmann, homelessness forms part of a wider poverty issue in a country which has little in the way of a welfare state. There is no national health service in Chile and its education system is largely privatised. Half of the country’s pupils attend “subsidised” schools costing parents on average USD$400 a month – just under minimum wage.  Consequently, many families on lower incomes struggle to cope and are pushed into poverty.

Furthermore Eissmann attacks the government’s strategy of channelling all of its investment in the homeless through the Ministry for Social Development: “What the homeless need are more targeted strategies which involve a number of different Ministries, like the Ministry for Work and Pensions. Rather than just one project, there need to be a number of policies geared towards improving the situation.”

He is not a lone critic. Barbara Figueroa, President of Chile’s largest union, CUT, says the government’s failure to address the country’s prevalent inequality has exacerbated the problem. “It’s embarrassing to hear the government talk about how great the economy is when at the same time we can see that many people struggle to pay the bills at the end of the month,” she says, “The government is being very stingy and irresponsible in its attitudes towards creating opportunities for those without decent full time jobs.”

Recent reports reveal Chile has the highest rate of income inequality in the OECD, with a Gini index of 0.50 compared to the average of 0.30. At the same time the country has enjoyed significant GDP growth, and the jobless rate fell to 6.1 percent in the last quarter of 2012 - the lowest in almost six years.

Unsurprisingly, Chile’s current Undersecretary for Social Development is more willing to discuss the latter statistic than the former. Asked whether her government sees raising the minimum wage as a priority, Loreto Seguel appears unsure: “We have a very strong economy and we are creating more and more jobs”, she enthuses, “Rather than merely increasing minimum wage we think it’s important to offer more opportunities for homeless people so that they can get better jobs - and that’s what our centres are doing.”

But on the streets few homeless people are willing to endorse her view. 58 year old Jaime has been homeless in central Santiago for 20 years and has experienced the policies of numerous administrations. He claims the only assistance he has received has been from NGOs and religious organisations, and that the current government has been one of the toughest he has lived under: “We received a lot more help from the previous president [Michelle Bachelet] but usually it’s charities like Moviliza which are there to make sure we don’t die of cold or hunger.”

Life has never been easy for Jaime, who has been a victim of violent attacks and admits he has occasionally broken the law in order to survive: “There are many dangers on the streets and I have been assaulted several times. I’ve had to rob supermarkets and rummage through dustbins for food so I don’t starve,” he shakes his head sadly.

This winter will once again test whether the government’s policies can prevent a further spate of homeless deaths. While they may do little to comfort the wider concerns of Jaime and his friends, Loreto Seguel is eager to offer some words of optimism:

“Thanks to the work of this government we have seen the number of deaths during the winter decrease each year. I have no doubt there will be better news this year and we won’t stop until we have created opportunities for everybody.”