By Ivett de las Mercedes
HAVANA TIMES – The number of homeless people is growing in Havana, as well as in the rest of the country. This situation has caught everyone’s attention. Some people are worried, others are unaffected, and unfortunately, a large percentage of the population attempt to justify the inexcusable.
Lazaro Hernandez is 50 years old and was a social worker in the Old Havana municipality. While he worked on the data side of things, he knew full well what problems indigent people faced.
HT: What can you tell me about the issue of homeless people in this densely populated part of Havana?
Lazaro Hernandez: There are many root causes for Cuba’s homeless situation. In recent decades, economic strife has led to an increase in dysfunctional families. New ways of viewing and facing life have flourished, old habits have given way to completely unexpected values.
Most of the retired elderly population receive a pension of 248 pesos (10 USD) per month, and it’s impossible for anyone to get by with this amount. An old person has to eat, buy medicine, wash their clothes, pay the electricity bill and gas and water bills too in lots of cases. It’s utopian to think that somebody can take on all these expenses if they live alone. Imagine now when retirement ages have been extended: to 60 for women and 65 for men. The situation is such that many retired people, even when they don’t have the strength, get another contract somewhere so they can earn a little extra.
HT: It’s a well-known fact that some homeless people have a family.
LH: I don’t know if you can call children, grandchildren or nephews and nieces “family” if they abandon the elderly person when they aren’t the legal owner of their home. There have even been cases when these so-called “family relatives” have sold homes, taking advantage of the old person’s time in the hospital. If old people deserve a good life in any country, it’s here in Cuba, only we know how much our people have had to sacrifice.
Today, many of these old people who sleep in doorways, at bus stops, in parks or at the train station, who walk about in rags and broken shoes, who sometimes beg; well, they once fought for this country, they dedicated their active years to working, they were guards, they did voluntary work, they donated blood, they were union members and leaders, they were Communist Party militants and they were militia members. It’s sad because the Cuban people have been known for their solidarity and internationalist acts, having even received students from other countries in their own homes.
HT: Have you ever thought that you might also suffer this reality?
LH: Of course. Today, the population aged 60+ is growing. I can’t understand how the government didn’t see this problem coming. How can they not build enough homes or shelters in every municipality to take in the elderly? I find something else harder to understand and that’s why pensions aren’t increased or why caretakers’ wages aren’t increased. I would like to know what on Earth is being done with the money people pay in taxes, especially now when we have so many self-employed.
HT: Do you know what the current situation is of food halls for social assistance cases, known as “Family Attention”?
LH: These food halls lived their golden days, like everything else in this country; but they fall short today. Some close because they lack one thing or another. Sometimes, they don’t even have plates, not to mention cutlery and glasses.
This might be one of the things that could be improved to help alleviate the situation, I believe that more food halls need to be created by municipalities in agreement with their residents, and bearing in mind the number of people who reach 60 years of age, so that not only social security cases can go, but also many elderly people who aren’t registered as such but in reality are. There are also the food halls that belong to the Catholic Church, which used to help many of their parishioners, and now they are in a critical situation.
HT: There are people who are indifferent to the growing number of homeless people here in Cuba.
LH: It’s not only indifference, it’s blindness, dehumanization, a lack of empathy. There are many young people who take photos of them to upload to Facebook, some mock them and others egg them on to dance and sing. I saw a woman who was collecting food scraps near the Ten Cent store in Monte, and people were insulting her and they poke her with a stick lots of times too. There is another woman who walks about Bernaza street with a doll in her arms, and men shout out “crazy woman”.
HT: A large part of the population believe that people begging do so because they want to drink.
LH: Yes, this is the Cuban people’s problem, they repeat everything they hear. A homeless person might be an alcoholic, some might be alcoholics, and others are people with mental health issues and they have stopped taking their medication, but they are still human beings. All of these degrading adjectives you hear do nothing more than reflect the lack of humanity we have today. It’s shameful for someone to try and justify the magnitude of this problem, it’s outrageous that many people mention there’s begging in other countries too, they seem to forget that we fought here in Cuba for this to never happen again. It is society as a whole’s obligation to look out for the elderly.
HT: What do you think about the proposals made to pass a future bill about how children treat their parents?
LH: In Nature, parents look out for their cubs and lots of times, these cubs stay within the same herd as their parents. It’s unacceptable that a law has to exist for something that has always been natural. Of course, bearing in mind the fact that there are cases of abandonment, harassment and abuse of the elderly, it’s a lot better to have the State’s legal protection. I believe that it is time for action, enough of words. The reality is that it is unbearably hot, it rains in the evenings, and many of our elderly are out on the street. What would Jose Marti, who loved his mother so much, as well as all the other Cubans say if they could go back in time?