Living on the Street: Only Option for Some of Cuba’s Elderly

By Ivett de las Mercedes

A homeless person on Monserrate St.

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.

Checking out the garbage on Teniente Rey St.

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.

Hanging out in the El Cristo Park.

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?

31 thoughts on “Living on the Street: Only Option for Some of Cuba’s Elderly

  • January 30, 2021 at 6:06 pm

    In reference to the comment about Canadians always having shelter and something to eat, not so. In the province of BC welfare rates are so low that people have to choose between shelter or food, but can’t afford both. People do go hungry and can’t always afford the medical care they need, or the medicine. It is a myth that no one starves in Canada. Lack of affordable housing is the main cause of homelessness. Even working people are homeless sometimes. And a senior’s pension at the low end is not enough to live on and keep your health as food has become so expensive. Homelessness and poverty are increasing, especially for the elderly here in Canada too.

  • August 2, 2019 at 10:27 pm

    The shelters in Canada give enough to survive a place will you will not freeze clean water to drink. There needs to be better and more shelters and many people sleep in their cars and vans but nobody goes hungry or without medical care and medicine. A bank ATM is a poor mans hotel room but work is available to to those who want it. In Cuba I seen people dying from the lack of certain medications and the right foods. I seen girls from 17 to 27 go with older men to get money for their grand parents.

  • July 28, 2019 at 8:22 pm

    But like the lady in the picture Michael, they can be grateful for shade.

  • July 27, 2019 at 11:01 pm

    At least the homeless in Cuba don’t have to worry about freezing to death!

  • July 26, 2019 at 10:50 am

    When Sending Money to Cuba Through Western Union are Cuban Family,s Receiving there Complete Gifts as We Support & Pay out for them. Is there a unknown Tax removed first before they receive our Support

  • July 24, 2019 at 3:21 pm

    So one assumes that the group of people described in the article you referenced are a registered business, subject to taxation. if the Castro system does not tax the operators of a business, whose fault is that? Certainly the elderly on the streets reflect sixty years of communist government – that is not disputable. I wonder what the daily return is upon a 27% holding in ETECSA?

  • July 23, 2019 at 7:18 pm

    There are certain contributors to HT who have maintained in the past that there are no homeless in Cuba. Isn’t it odd that they have no comments here.

  • July 23, 2019 at 5:23 am

    Really sad!
    Now try to help these poor people from over seas. Try to send them food or shoes, medicine, clothing or some money and you will hit a huge wall placed by the cuban goverment against its own people.
    All donations has to be surrender to the communist goverment and “they will take of the rest”…
    Donations are to be sold, either on the black market or at the goverment stores, meaning they got the goods for free making 100% profit.
    Been there, seen that, I lived in that mad house for over 30 years.

  • July 21, 2019 at 1:16 pm

    To Janet A. Garnett!
    The CURRENT dictator in Cuba is Raul Castro Ruz, First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba which takes precedence over the State of Cuba. Diaz-Canel is merely “President of the Council of Ministers” and was appointed (anointed) by Raul Castro Ruz.
    Janet, the homelessness and awful plight of the aged in Cuba is a consequence of Fidel and Raul Castro being in power for sixty years!
    Your statement that “The Castro’s, Fidel and his brother, would never have allowed this to happen.” reflects not partial, but total ignorance of the reality in Cuba.
    As one married to a Cuban with our home in Cuba, I do not hate the Castros! I detest their communist policies!
    Upon his appointment as President of the Council of Ministers (he is also going to be appointed Prime Minister), Diaz-Canel said:
    “Comrade Raul will head the decisions for the present and future of the nation.”
    If Diaz-Canel says that, who are you to disagree or dispute the Castros responsibility?

  • July 21, 2019 at 6:15 am

    The article is written about Cuba and Cubans and the problems they faced so I agree why speak about other nations. We all have homeless people in our countries no one is saved but it’s how the government and people assist in them. I am from Ontario Canada and I know that we have have too many homeless people for a city like Toronto but we have agencies we have people walking the street when it’s too cold assisting the homeless to shelters and if they refuse giving them blankets to keep warm. We may not have enough shelters to accommodate everyone I agree we need more but to compare our countries to Cuba one shouldn’t even begin.

  • July 21, 2019 at 12:38 am

    Berta,,de que hablas,,no se te entiende nada,,el tema es sobre la situación de los ancianos de Cuba q viven en la pobreza y muchos en las calles..Que tiene q ver eso con el embargo?…pleaseee

  • July 20, 2019 at 8:36 pm

    *As much as most of the Western world hated them – The Castro’s, Fidel and his brother, would never have allowed this to happen.

  • July 20, 2019 at 4:28 pm

    I have friends in Cuba and have gone twice a year for some time. I have stayed in resorts, camping cottages for Cubans and casa particular.
    I honestly ignorantly thought there were few homeless people in Cuba because of the perpetuated saying that there wasn’t. I read about the struggles with housing, demand not being met, crumbling homes, multi family homes etc. I have had friends on a waiting list for a new apartment build, and watched the slow construction of these simple concrete buildings.
    I also know that respect for elders is important to my Cuban friends, I see how they take care of their 90+ year old family members in their families. I know that senior housing does exist.
    But guess what? All governments everywhere are struggling with the same thing. We are all failing our elderly, mentally ill and vulnerable.

    This article is a real eye opener and only makes sense. How ignorant I’ve been.

  • July 20, 2019 at 3:07 pm

    In the U. S. Or Canada housing is available unless you are using illegal drugs. I have lived sleeping across the front seat of a pickup for 3 years after my house was condemned after a windstorm that my insurance company refused to fix . Any night I needed a a spot to sleep a shelter bed and breakfast was always available. Many construction workers live In vans in Canada and the U.S. These people can afford food clothes and basic medicines. We get free showers at church’s and truck stops. I was making $26. Cd or $20 U.S. per hour but homeless to make sure that father was looked after and my lawyer was aid to fight the insurance company. I never had to worry about anything. In Cuba I seen teen girls sleep older tourists so they could support their grandmother and other family members. These girls were more afraid of the police than the tourists.

  • July 20, 2019 at 2:52 pm

    This was a problem in Cuba five years ago groups from Canada have had medical equipment and food taken by the government of Cuba after refusing to pay tariffs of more than the value of items shipped to work with nonprofit organizations in Cuba. If you go to where tourists are not supposed to be Cuba is as bad as the poor parts of Mexico. The difference is in Mexico the government works with foreign groups and provides security. In Cuba we are sent to airport when we try to follow the items provided often shipped by container loads. This happens so often in Cuba that we give up. Cuba does not allow mid size Cooperative of over one million gross per month

  • July 20, 2019 at 2:49 pm

    Having visited Cuba many times.. Such beautiful people their history and stunning scenery.. I wish the goverment would show the people how greatful and proud of them they are by treating them better with increasing wages.. Providing help and support for the elderly. Those with mental health and addiction. And invest more money to renewing run down hospitals buildings and transport. Come on govermentals in Cuba your amazing people treat your loyal people better

  • July 20, 2019 at 12:47 pm

    Cuba does not have an envargo cuba has an envargo againt his own people

  • July 20, 2019 at 12:40 pm

    As a Cuban American who came in 1967 it brings tears to my eyes to see this happening right now.

  • July 20, 2019 at 12:03 pm

    Inevitably US citizens use any excuse to intervene with tales of the misfortunes suffered by their fellow citizens, rather than considering the article and its contents. It is a peculiarity that those readers of HT who do not live in the US seldom rail against their own countries as do those from the US do constantly -it gets a little tiresome!
    HT is not about comparisons between the US and Latin American countries – particularly Cuba.
    The key point about this particular article is that it dispels the myth that there are no homeless in Cuba as repeatedly claimed by Castro aficionados in these pages.
    Mia Sanchez (above) summarized the common opinion that in Cuba family ties ensure that the aged have a roof over their heads. Only those who live and exist in the non-tourist areas are fully aware of the realities of Cuba where abject poverty is commonplace and where the homeless are to be found – in the tourist areas, MININT goons remove them. That statement will undoubtedly produce denials and comparisons with “things are even worse elsewhere”, but this is about Cuba and its reality following sixty long dreary years of communist dictatorship. Homelessness in Cuba is not a consequence of the US embargo, but of Castro government.

  • July 20, 2019 at 8:42 am

    No Linda,
    You clearly did’t get my point: There shouldn’t be homeless people (and especially homeless elderly people) anywhere in the world if governments would properly take care of their people.

  • July 20, 2019 at 6:05 am

    Definitely Elder Neglect and Elder Abuse by the Cuban government to have the elderly homeless. Eight years ago I visited CUBA with 24 other professional retirees from the US we witnessed an elderly woman requesting additional nutrition at a ration store. We were told it was graul that she was given to meet calorie needs. The woman observed by myself and others was skin and bones. I never forgot that imagine.

  • July 20, 2019 at 4:23 am

    Your lame whataboutism is duly noted.

    So if there are homeless people in the US then that makes it ok for Cuba to have a growing number homeless people.

  • July 20, 2019 at 3:10 am

    Sorry David,
    Both systems suck. A government is supposed to take care of its people. Every country and system has its good and bad. Sometimes a lot of good or a lot of bad. But I never came across a nation where all is good.
    Too many leaders and people in government live the good life and consciensly or not have no clue of how the less fortunate in their countries live. Or don’t care. Or want to improve sales or retain power.
    Cuba is a good example, but the USA too!
    Although in the countries with freedom of speech you can at least say something about it.

  • July 19, 2019 at 10:12 pm

    Not to mention the total blockade that our USA is putting on the Cuban people which is hurting them even more and preventing their attempts at starting business and migration to capitalism .

  • July 19, 2019 at 8:44 pm

    It’s 55 years after the revolution if this is what it has to Sum up to…Why would anyone think that it will work in any other land… If it took 55 years from start to what seems to be the finish cause this was the reason for the revolution…. Yet capitalism still strong at least a combine balance of the two social capitalism… With labor having a strong voice…..we can honestly say ” no Viva Fidel “

  • July 19, 2019 at 7:48 pm

    Berta keep in mind that the interview is with a Cuban living in Cuba about a problem in Cuba. Why must he address problems in the US where he has most likely never been. Why shouldn’t he be concerned with the situation in his own country?

  • July 19, 2019 at 7:09 pm

    I am sympathetic to any and all persons that are left to living in the streets. Its inhumane. But to claim this is a problem in Cuba in light of the massive homelessness impacting all major U.S. cities, is absurd as singling out a poor nation that has been subjected to the most brutal economic sanctions. Clearly there are more homeless folk in one U.S. City in comparison to all of Cuba.

  • July 19, 2019 at 6:24 pm

    That hurts me to see the elderly homeless in Cuba. I wish i could do something to help them. It really breaks my heart.Cuban government should provide them a home and increase their monthly benefits. Thanks for the article.

  • July 19, 2019 at 1:10 pm

    The plight of the homeless is a situation that most people run away from. It is the same with the mentally challenged. We that believe and in most cases are well turn a blind eye to the sick, the indigent, even to people that aren’t like us by way of race, ethnicity, color of the skin and yes socio economic status. Oops! I forgot religious and political affiliation. Like The Beatles lyric says it is a ” Live And Let Die,” world we have entered into. I am afraid the time for praying is escaping us as the secular society expands. Good Luck !

  • July 19, 2019 at 12:37 pm

    I have Goosebumps at the moment ,I never imagined that there was a problem with the elderly and Cuba I am cuban-american and I’ve always seen a very high regard toward family among Cubans, it’s very sad and honestly unacceptable that such a thing is going on…thank you for educating me on something I wasn’t aware of ,and it was very well written ?

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