Homelessness and Protest in Spain


 “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services,” states the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its naivety might surprise us when we recognize that this 25th Article is infringed all around the world.

Spain is not an exception. Even if the right to housing is specified in the Spanish Constitution, 21.8% of the total population lives in poverty (in 2004, the figure barely surpassed 15%). How did we get this far? 

From the end of the 20th century, Spain witnessed an exponential economic expansion, fueled by a huge increase in the construction industry: Spain was building more than Germany, France and Italy combined. But behind this mirage of economic development and wealth, the truth was that housing prices were rising at an alarming rate, which led to a housing bubble that exploded with the international financial crisis. The crisis hit the whole population, but especially those who had seen no benefit from the economic expansion –the jobless and the homeless. 

Since the turn of the 21st century, the Spanish homelessness rate has steadily increased. Though the high price of housing initially sparked this increase, since the 2008 financial collapse suffocating mortgages have become its leading cause. Between 2007 and 2010, 328,720 foreclosures left numerous families on the street. More than two hundred still occur every day. The problem doesn't end here: though these families have traditionally enjoyed federally-guaranteed health care and education, the austerity measures introduced by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his predecessor Zapatero threaten to deprive these families not only of housing and jobs but also of public education and health care.

Spanish society hasn’t taken these drastic austerity measures lightly. In May 2011, hundreds of thousands of Spaniards calling themselves the indignados (“the outraged”) occupied public spaces in cities all across the country. Since then, people and organizations have continued to work non-stop for social justice. The General Assemblies of each city dissolved into smaller neighborhood assemblies empowered to work more efficiently on local issues; most of them still hold up. Catalyzed by the May 2011 demonstrations, organizations like V de Vivienda and Mortgage Affected Platform (PAH) put together people on the verge of losing their home and those who have already. They provide support to the families and prevent more cases like theirs from happening. For instance, every time there is an eviction, people will gather in front of the house or apartment to thwart the police from coming in. Another example of local action is the 15-O building, an empty building in Barcelona that indignados took to shelter ten families. Currently, the squatter families still live in the apartments named after the global protests that befell October 15th 2011. 

This may not be, of course, the final solution to Spain's problems. But neither is it providing less unemployment pensions, leaving more people on the street and cutting down on citizen's rights. These policies affect above all the most vulnerable, the 21.6% of Spaniards that live under the threshold of poverty. The final solution might come after a long time of struggle that Spanish society has only begun to fight.  

—Mar Romero

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