Middle class to underclass in impoverished SpainBy Sylvie Groult
BURGOS—As the first snow of winter falls, a crowd squeezes through the door of the charity shelter. Women, immigrants, the homeless and jobless—the swelling ranks of Spain’s economic casualties.
Among them, Carmen Perez, 52, rummages through a pile of winter clothes and pulls out a thick coat, for sale for handful of euros. In Spain’s recession, she can’t afford to buy one from a shop.
“I am here because of the cold. This will keep me nice and warm,” says Perez, who has been coming for the past year to this help centre run by the Catholic charity Caritas in the northern town of Burgos.
“Here if you have nothing, they give you things for free,” she says, her little face peeping out from a big woolly hat.
She earns 800 euros ($1,000) a month cash-in-hand as a cleaning lady, of which 400 go on rent and the rest help support her husband and three grown-up sons— all four unemployed.
That makes her a typical example of a victim of the crisis in Spain, where the collapse of the construction industry has left nearly two million families with all working-age members unemployed, according to government figures.
But the typical profile is changing. The queue at the shelter is lengthening as the crisis, having already crushed the poorest in Spain, is now ruining the middle class.
“The crisis is affecting middle-class people who previously were in a more stable situation,” says one of the workers at the centre, David Polo.
“There is no one in Spain who has not felt the effects of the crisis, except for the very, very rich.”
At the shelter’s reception in this historic town of 170,000, homeless people trying to rebuild their lives wait their turn for one of 40 spaces in the shelter’s bedrooms.
Others are simply seeking to escape the cold for a night; come evening they unroll their blankets on camp beds in a large stone dormitory.
Staff member David Alonso says 1,100 people have slept at the emergency shelter this year so far—as many as came overall in 2011.
“People are starting to come who previously were living a normal life. The average age is getting lower—it is between 35 and 40, whereas before it was between 40 and 50,” he says.
“There has also been a substantial rise in the number of women.”
In the year since Mariano Rajoy and his conservative Popular Party won power, the unemployment rate has passed 25 percent, and a huge 52 percent among those aged 16-24.
Humanitarian groups warn that poverty is surging and spreading. One study by the European Union said 12.7 million of the 47 million people in Spain were at risk of poverty or other forms of so-called social exclusion.
“When they lose their jobs, problems start to emerge that before were hidden—alcohol, addictions,” said Alonso. “These are people who were more or less normal, and when they lose their jobs, exclusion grows.”
Next door to the Caritas shelter, the San Vicente de Paul canteen serves lunch, tea and supper to some of the poorest people in town— such as Javier Santos, 34.
“I came here for a coffee,” he says. “There’s nowhere else I can get one.”
Two years ago Javier had a girlfriend, a rented apartment and up to 2,800 euros a month from his job as a metal worker.
Now unemployed, separated and homeless, he sits for long hours in the charity canteen at a table with his companions, watching television.
“I never would have imagined finding myself in this situation,” he said.
“Last year I voted for the Popular Party so they would change things, but things changed for the worse.”
A voluntary worker at the canteen, Julian Garcia, 60, says that he has seen the crisis spread in the faces of those turning up at its door.
“Previously there were lots of immigrants, but for the past three years the number of local people has grown alarmingly— people who have no resources and have to search for food.”
In a few days, Javier says, he will become eligible for some temporary welfare benefits to help him get by.
“I will try to eat with that,” he says. When the money runs out, I will come back here.”