They’ve already been through trauma. Now COVID-19 is a ticking time bomb for Medellín’s most vulnerable.
“My friends, hello!” shouted a voice from the street. “Does anyone have any food to spare?”
“The local government hasn’t helped me. I really need your help,” a man walking the streets of Medellín shouted up to residents in their apartment blocks, begging for money.
Hearing these desperate pleas for food and money has become the new norm in the city of Medellín, since the nationwide lockdown was imposed to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
This is how Jaider Borja, aged 22 and Andrés Ayala, aged 29, now secure their next meals. That is, on the days they don’t receive meal donations from groups of volunteers at local NGOs such as Fundación Visibles and Everyday Life, which oversees the audiovisual documentary project Everyday Homeless.
Borja and Ayala, who live on the city’s streets, are both displaced from Medellín’s Comuna 13, one of the city’s lower income barrios, which has been transformed in recent years by an influx of tourism.
Before the first coronavirus case arrived in Medellín and the country’s government imposed obligatory lockdown in March, Borja and Ayala used to recycle to earn money to buy food, much like the other 40.5% of the city’s homeless population, according to statistics published in November 2019 by Colombia’s National Department for Statistics (DANE).
However, since quarantine was imposed, both young men have stopped recycling.
“Collectors are now paying half price for the same amount of material,” Borja told The Bogotá Post, explaining how the pair used to earn between COP$20,000 to COP$30,000 per day for spending around six hours recycling.
As a result, the pair have decided it’s just not worth the risk anymore, despite claiming they are “not scared” of catching COVID-19. “We have high defences,” said Ayala.
They live in a makeshift shelter on a patch of grass by a bridge that crosses over Medellín’s autopista, the main road running through the city, along with Ayala’s pregnant girlfriend, another friend and their pet dog, Rocky.
To gather drinking water, Borja makes the daily trek up to Cerro Nutibara – which stands 80m higher than the rest of the city – where there is a stream.
“We’re waiting for the government’s help,” Ayala said.
Local government strategy
The local government’s response is led by the Secretary of Social Inclusion, Family and Human Rights, Mónica Alejandra Gómez and her team. The department has designed a three-point plan to protect Medellín’s homeless population during the pandemic and assure us that tests will be issued to those who show symptoms of COVID-19.
The transient nature of the homeless community and lack of an extensive support system present many challenges. The local authorities want to stop people – some of whom have lived on the streets for many years – from moving around, for their own safety.
Gómez says that a number of people are already staying in the city’s two care centres, both of which are full. Visits are restricted and strict rules mean members are not allowed to leave the centre.
“We provide them with the attention they need so that they can spend this quarantine period in the best conditions possible,” she told The Bogotá Post, via WhatsApp. This includes continuing to offer basic facilities such as showers, food and daily activities at each centre.
But for 63-year-old Marco Aguirre, who has spent seven years of his life living underneath a bridge next to the river which runs through the city, the idea of being shut in a shelter and not able to leave is terrifying.
His views were echoed by some – but not all – of our interviewees. Others were tempted by the idea of the security these shelters seem to offer in unpredictable times. Which is why Gómez has opened up the Carlos Mauro Hoyos coliseum and the Florencia coliseum as temporary shelters, where the same confinement restrictions will be applied. The Carlos Mauro Hoyos coliseum has an approximate capacity of 2,600 and is equipped to receive 500 vulnerable families during the pandemic, Gómez tweeted.
The local government has also pledged to continue to provide the homeless population with primary healthcare, which involves taking their temperatures and looking out for potential respiratory coronavirus symptoms. In the event of a suspected contraction of the virus, Gómez says that all the necessary strategies for isolation will be enforced according to national guidelines.
The government has also supplemented existing campaigns to encourage self-care among the homeless population, providing extra facilities to encourage them to wash their hands as much as possible.
Reactions from the homeless community
Aguirre doesn’t plan to join those in the temporary shelters. Before lockdown, he worked as a gardener at Fundación Remar, an NGO that works with the homeless population, which provided him with enough to get by. With his work on hold, Aguirre spends his days cooking for the eight people who have been living under the bridge with him since he got there.
“We’re like family,” he said, adding that since the pandemic, lots of new homeless people have also arrived to shelter with them. The group, many of whom were also recyclers but have stopped working because of the reduced pay, are living off food donations.
Ayala, who lives in a makeshift shelter, also said that it would be difficult for him to take refuge in one of the government’s new temporary shelters because of the large cart he pushes around for recycling.
“They wouldn’t let me in with it,” he said, worried that leaving it outside would mean it would be taken. Rocky the dog wouldn’t be allowed into the shelter either, he suspects.
Despite the fact it would prevent her from seeing her daughter and niece, Beatriz Ochoa, a 53-year-old diabetic lady who has been homeless for 20 years, seemed interested in checking out the shelter, since her work selling bin liners has dried up.
Impossible to work
And Ochoa is not alone. 76-year-old Francisco Javier Ocampo used to work recycling at the Minorista fruit and vegetable market.
However, after local mayor Daniel Quintero Calle became aware of several cases of coronavirus among those who worked there, on April 14 he ordered the market’s closure, leaving Ocampo jobless.
“I didn’t use to like asking for food,” said Ocampo. “But now I have to.”
“I was at the day care centre,” he added. “But they kicked me out to give priority to the people that need it most.” These include disabled members of the homeless community, who would be more vulnerable if they caught the virus.
Besides homeless people, the sudden disappearance of customers is also affecting the city’s street sellers. Some of them used to be able to make enough to be able to pay for a room by the night, in one of the city’s informal hostels, but not anymore. Now, they too have been forced to sleep on the streets and beg for food.
In Medellín’s low-income neighbourhoods, where many have also lost the opportunity to go out and work since the start of lockdown, families – who have been left hungry and without medicine – are hanging red flags from their windows as a plea for help.
“The more vulnerable the person is, the bigger the risk they could suffer,” said Gómez, recognising that the coronavirus pandemic is particularly traumatic for those Colombians whose lives have already been turned upside down, such as migrants, or the forcibly displaced.
Various NGOs who work with the homeless agree that every aspect of the health and economic crisis is felt more keenly by society’s most vulnerable and worst off.
“I think the pandemic has made the population more segregated,” said Laura Kate Correa, a spokesperson for NGO Fundación Visibles.
“It’s revealing the current social, economic and even political problems of the country,” echoed Nataly Cartagena, co-founder of the NGO collective Everyday Life.
“What this quarantine has done is show a reality that we perhaps might have forgotten,” added Cartagena, who also works with Red de Calle, a Latin America-wide network of programs to help the homeless.
Is the government strategy working?
Despite this, Correa praised the city’s public administration for the job it has done to protect the homeless population during the pandemic, highlighting the local government’s work to provide accommodation and washing facilities.
The National Health Institute (INS) reports just 501 positive cases of COVID-19 in the department of Antioquia at the time of writing, compared to 4,892 in Bogotá. The relatively low numbers of officially registered cases, combined with national lockdown orders to prevent the collapse of Medellín’s ill-equipped health system, has meant an outbreak of coronavirus among the homeless population is yet to unfold.
While the local government has taken some steps, it is still too early to tell whether they will be enough to protect the city’s homeless. Especially as it will be difficult for them to access healthcare if they do catch the virus.
We’re now faced with the prospect of a spike in coronavirus cases as the city looks to relax lockdown restrictions at the end of the month. Cartagena worries that public authorities will have to attend other sectors of the population which will reduce their current capacity to attend the most vulnerable.
“The [public health] problem is beyond the capacity of government entities,” said Cartagena, reflecting on the way that a decade-long problem of social inclusion is now teetering on the brink of becoming a public health disaster.
Lessons to be learnt
“This crisis has shown the importance of a social and wellbeing focus for the population,” secretary Gómez reflected. “The economic development of a nation or territory is based on the wellbeing of its citizens.”
When the crisis dies down, she explained, the local government will focus on generating opportunities for vulnerable members of the population. And one sector that needs particular attention in terms of opportunities are the city’s informal workers.
“We already knew how many homeless people there were in the city,” said Correa, referencing the 3,788 people registered by the 2019 DANE census. “But we had no idea how many informal workers there were. If these people don’t earn a daily wage, they literally have no way of being able to eat.”
Cartagena suggests the solution to this deeply-ingrained inequality consists of alliances and collaboration between the local government and NGOs. “We believe this is the basis of development,” she said.
For both Correa and Cartagena, now more than ever it is important that public and private entities work closely together to design integrated policies and relief strategies that can adequately protect the city’s vulnerable populations.