Madrid Mayor Wants to Sweep Homeless Out of Sight

José Antonio Gurriarán

HAVANA TIMES, April 20 (IPS) — The mayor of Madrid, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, has called for a law for compulsory removals of homeless people off the streets, but this has met with resistance from civil society organisations and has split Ruiz-Gallardo’s own People’s Party (PP).

Ruiz-Gallardón wants the centre-right PP, the main opposition party in Spain, to include in its platform for next year’s general elections a bill to authorise the expulsion of homeless people sleeping in public spaces in the country’s big cities, against their will if necessary.

News of the proposal triggered controversy across Spain, where protests were mounted by political and social groups and human rights organisations.

Even the president (governor) of the autonomous community (province) of Madrid, Esperanza Aguirre, also of the PP, said she was against “prohibitions of any kind” and “depriving anyone of his or her rights.”

Aguirre spoke up at a meeting on citizen security attended by the mayor, which was held at the headquarters of the Madrid municipal police, where criticism of the mayor’s proposition was also voiced by homeless people and by representatives of practically all the political parties in the parliamentary spectrum.

A vigorously-worded communiqué from the Federation of Entities Supporting Homeless People (FEPSH) expressed “alarm” at the initiative, and accused the mayor of “worrying ignorance” when he stated that “anyone sleeping on the streets of Madrid does so voluntarily and not out of necessity.”

The communiqué goes on to say that the initiative is an “attempt to make poverty invisible,” rather than to seek ways of integrating homeless people into society.

Elena Valenciano, a member of the leadership of the governing Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and spokeswoman for its Electoral Committee, told IPS that Ruiz-Gallardón’s aims “are profoundly xenophobic” and remind her of “the law on Vagrants and Criminals used by the Francisco Franco dictatorship (1939-1975), which fortunately was repealed after democracy was restored.”

For his part, Jaime Lissavetzky, a socialist candidate for the Madrid city government in the local elections in May, told the El País newspaper that the proposal has a “whiff” of the Franco regime about it.

“It’s unacceptable to call for the reinstatement of a law to ‘clean up’ Madrid that would force homeless people off public thoroughfares, while cynically saying that the city government has the social resources to look after them,” he said.

Similar criticisms were levelled at Ruiz-Gallardón by Ángel Pérez, a candidate for the Madrid city government for Izquierda Unida (United Left), a coalition of communists, “greens” and other progressive groups. He said “the mayor sees social problems as aesthetic ones, and wants them to disappear: he apparently believes that if they are out of sight, they cease to exist.”

IPS sought the view of the regional president of the Madrid Neighbours’ Associations, who held the same opinion. “The problem of homeless people is not a question of urban landscaping, but of poverty,” he said.

José Diéguez, an Ecuadorian immigrant who became jobless and homeless two years ago because of the economic crisis and sleeps on cardboard in the central Plaza Mayor, told IPS “although it’s true that, as the mayor says, there are hostels and homeless shelters, there aren’t enough of them: they are always full, and there are waiting lists of weeks or even months for a place.”

The controversy about the homeless has been taken to heart by public opinion in Spain, and judging by the torrent of protests to be seen in online newspapers, blogs and web sites, the general feeling is against Ruiz-Gallardón’s idea.

Everyone on both sides of the argument is aware that the vast majority of the people sleeping rough and enduring the cold at nights are unemployed and homeless as a result of the prolonged global economic crisis. They are immigrants from Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe, as well as large numbers of Spaniards.

But they are also aware that the proposal is not a new one, as in 2006 Pedro Calvo, a Madrid city councillor for Security, put forward an amendment to the law on State Security Corps and Forces that would allow the police to remove beggars, prostitutes and drug addicts to shelters and hostels, even against their will.

“Ruiz-Gallardón’s proposed law is fairly similar to Calvo’s bill,” Diéguez said. “They want to lump us all together in the same basket, but almost all the homeless people I know are working people who lost their jobs.”