Where do you sleep at night?

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…

image credit: Wikipedia

image credit: Wikipedia

17 thoughts on “Where do you sleep at night?

  1. You write a heart breaking and honest account of homelessness. It’s much the same everywhere, albeit on different scales/degrees of severity. I think most end up homeless because of either mental illness and no support, or they’re from abusive backgrounds and wanted to escape. Most develop their addictions to cope with being on the streets which then creates a cycle they can’t get out of. I studied social work in university and this was what the research told me. I’m not observant enough to have come up with these facts on my own! lol A lot of it comes down to luck though because you could have a mental illness or addiction and not be homeless-the difference is who you have to support you (family, spouse, partner, friends, etc.). If you’ve isolated yourself chances are you are not equipped to get off the streets. There needs to be better outreach programmes in place so homeless people can get the help they need. Some do not want the help but many do.

  2. And yet there are five heirs to the Walmart fortune– heirs, who did no work, just were born and inherited this– who each have upwards of $20 billion.
    Thanks for this important, well-written post.

  3. I’ve wondered too, what the stories are… My sister in law works with the homeless and I greatly admire her for being able to find enough positives in the work to keep on going, rather than being weighed down by the hopelessness of it all. It is very difficult to really see the homeless and deal with all of the difficult emotions and fears and feelings of helplessness that it brings up. Most of us choose to ignore them instead.

  4. Quienes eran..?

    Enviado desde mi iPad

    El 05/03/2013, a las 18:52, “not all about cats” escribió:


  5. Thank you so much for this. Beautifully and sensitively written.
    The truth is we are all but one step away from homelessness in some way – we never know what’s around the corner. Mental illness and abuse seem to be the biggest reasons – drug addiction and alcoholism often seem to be problems that stem from those causes too, and make it more likely to happen – at least to that degree. There are also a proportion of those people who just don’t want to change their lives and are perfectly happy with how they live – because maybe they don’t want to have to work for example. They are probably in the minority but they are there. I think it was in The Sociopath Next Door that the author mentioned people like that – the low-functioning sociopaths who are lazy and entitled and bored. I think because those people don’t tend to keep a lower profile and are open about their situation, they are more visible than a lot of those who are there through no fault of their own and that’s why there is a lot more stigma towards those who are homeless and the belief that it’s always a choice. Personally I have both been homeless, and volunteered with them.. now when I see a lot of those people around, I see a lot of hurt children looking back at me.

  6. It is fucked up and I have been there. It was in 1985 carrying my infant son in the streets of San Francisco. My abuser and children’s father who had a cocaine problem and spent all the money we had on drugs. For months I was able to scrounge up enough money to usually pay the bills. In April of 1985 the ability to get help ended. He was arrested for cocaine possession and we were evicted. All of the belongings were loaded up by the landlords hired help and sent to a storage area. The cost to retrieve our belongings was $350.00. I went to a friends apartment to call a shelter but they were all full.i was not able to stay with the friend because they were afraid my abuser would get out of jail and come there. With my baby I stayed at a schools playground in one of the play structure. I was only homeless for about 3 weeks. Ever since that experience I have never judged anyone for being homeless and always will give spare change. You never know what the persons situation is or was to lead them to live in the streets. Thanks for writing this post. I will blog about this story in the future. XXCOOO Becki

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