We don’t really have a word for homeless in Spanish. We’ve got bum, vagabond, beggar and a bunch of other words, but none that specifically refers to the fact that a person is without-a-home. And it’s not that we don’t have people living in the streets, we do, it’s a huge problem in Mexico City; in fact I would even dare say most of the beggars, which I believe are one of the strongest epidemics in the city, are living on the streets.
And when I say it’s an epidemic, I mean it (not talking about the individuals though, I’m only referring to the phenomenon). We’ve got people wanting to clean your windshields in every goddamned stoplight, we’ve got children asking for money while their “caretakers” are selling candies and gum, we’ve got people with not a sprinkle of musical talent in their bones playing trumpets for spare change, there are people coming out from under every rock “helping” you to park (we jokingly call them “viene vienes” because they always scream at you “it’s going, it’s going” so that you know when your car has enough space to move). You name it, we’ve got it. And people just learn to look away, others keep coins in their car specifically so they’ve got something to give to all the people that’s going to ask them for money throughout the day, most will admit to having bought candy or cigarettes from children… it’s an ugly problem and people deal with it as a natural part of this nasty city.
But where do these people sleep at night? No doubt a percentage of them has some place to stay, but what about the others? At night, they’re usually hiding away from prude eyes (and on the other hand truth is people don’t want to look at them anymore than they want to be seen) in sewers, under bridges, or abandoned constructions.
Whenever I see a homeless person in their home-ish space, I’m absolutely captivated, can’t look away, and it’s just a matter of a second before I start to wonder what their life must’ve been for them to end up like that, what was the point of no return for them. There’s this guy in particular. I see him everyday on my way home. What surprised me first was how out-in-the-open he lives. Because with homeless people, at least in the parts of the city where I roam about, you usually get to see them out on the streets making a living, but you don’t really get to see them in intimate situations.
This guy has lost that sense of what’s private. His “home” is right there next to a stoplight in Periferico, one of the most important avenues in the city. And I can see him right there while he sleeps covered in an undescriptible blanket, while he eats, while he gets high on paint thinner, and while he does other equally respectable activities such as garbage scavenging. I’ve seeing him counting pennies, drinking soda out of a discarded bottle, making a pillow out of cardboard… I think it’s only a matter of time before I see him “going to the bathroom”. And yet I can’t look away. I can’t ignore him like the rest of the drivers probably do.
I should add that one of the reasons of my odd interest (may I say curiosity? or does that sound too shallow?), is that a person in my family ended up on the streets. It was a distant relative whom I never met, the grandson of one of my mother’s aunts, but still. He grew up with his parents and sister, (though I’ve no idea what kind of family dynamics they lived in), went to school, majored in biology and later became an oceanographer or something of the sort. He went to live to Merida, a city close to Cancun and the ocean, and then his family lost track of him. Like, entirely. They didn’t hear a thing from him in years, not where he lived or worked, not a whisper. And then, someone found him living on the streets, drunk out of his ass. I want to imagine they tried to help him, though I don’t know that part of the story. All I know is that he died not long after that, causing a huge impact on his sister, who later went on to kill herself.
What happened in that family? What is it that pushes someone who was not born on the streets, who has a profession, to end up like that? Could be alcohol you may say, but why is it that not every rampant alcoholic or addict ends up on the street? And I can’t help but wonder, could it be me? I’m not being paranoid, I know that it probably won’t be me, but it does create a bit of a heartache to think that this person’s life could’ve been different.
What is going on in a city where you can find beggars in literally every part of it? Are there no opportunities, no place for them to live a life with dignity? It’s just fucked up…