The invisible crisis

                      “They have eyes, but they see not, ears, but they hear not… [there are] none so blind as those that will not see” –Jeremiah 5:21.

Colombia has been wrecked by 50 years of violence fueled by ideologies behind the civil war and the revenues from drug trade. Poverty in the country is rife: in 2015, the National Administrative Department of statistics reported that 27.8% of the country’s population were living below the poverty line. In turn, 7.9% were living in extreme poverty. In 2013, the country’s Gini coefficient was 0.535 in 2013; meaning that Colombia ranks among the most unequal Latin American countries in terms of wealth distribution. In addition to economic inequality, unemployment (8.9% in 2015), a shortage of affordable housing and a complete lack of social welfare programs threaten the very existence of much of the country’s population.

An important social crisis surging from the synergy between violence, political injustice and impunity, and economic inequality is the rise of homeless population in the country.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refuges, almost 6 million people are registered as internally displaced (or IDPs, standing for internally displaced persons) by conflict and violence. This statistic is startling: it is at least twice the number of IDPs in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Iraq and is the second highest recorded by the Norwegian Refugee Council and Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in 2014—only second to the number of IDPs in Syria.

By some estimates, approximately 80% of Colombian IDPs migrate to big cities looking for security and access to public services. (As of 2012, the estimated land lost by IDP was as high as 6.8 million hectares–almost 6% of the country’s area. The average monthly income of the average displaced family is USD $63—60% of which is spend in food, 6% in health and 3% in education.)

In the outskirts of Bogota, millions of “urban refuges” live in the ghettos, which are locally known as “belts of misery”—because the informal neighborhoods of tin and cardboard settlements take the form of a belt of around the city’s core. The slums of Bogota are highly violent and illegal armed groups, which usually also running the micro drug trade, control certain areas of the city—much like in Brazil’s large fabelas.

In Bogota, the street children are known as gamines—but more frequently they are referred to as “desechables” or disposables. They are often abducted into child soldiery and sexual slavery (Interpol estimates 1.2 million children are trafficked every year worldwide. In Colombia, the estimated number of women and girls trafficked out the country for sex trade is 35,000, every year).

According to the last UN global survey on homelessness (2005), an estimated 100 million people were homeless worldwide. Getting an accurate picture is extremely challenging as definitions of homelessness vary from country to country and as the dispossessed are usually ignored by census surveys.

In Colombia, the homeless problem in the country’s big cities is also known as “the invisible crisis”. “Invisible” because, sadly, for Colombia’s middle and higher class urban citizens, homelessness is not so much an issue but more of a nuance. What is considered a “Humanitarian” crisis by the international community, is just part of the urban landscape of Colombia’s major cities.

Gamines, orphans, and outcasts form street gangs to protect themselves and counter loneliness. In some neighborhoods of the city, these small gangs dominate the landscape. Torn, dirty, sick, smelly and stoned, they can be an intimating host. They drug themselves and sniff glue to mitigate hunger, cold and misery. They are not to be approached. Sooner or later they will end up dead in some of the city’s ditches. Everybody knows that.

When I was living in Bogota, I was mostly aware of the homeless for personal safety purposes, yet, I consider myself a socially conscious and “civically” sensitive resident. I am a critic of society—particularly the one I come from, the solid Colombian middle class: sufficiently comfortable economically and yet relatively exposed to risk.

It was not until recently, that I realized how blind the world is to the homeless issue in America.

Last week I was in Bozeman, Montana. For whatever reason, I stayed at a new hotel downtown Bozeman for two nights—The Lark. The place is truly pleasant. It is modern and comfortable. The hotel is 100% in tune with the local community and supports as many local business as possible—from the decorative art, to the bed sheets, to the tea selection, to the complementary biscotti snacks.

The rates for the hotel varied widely from night to night. For the two nights I stayed there, a basic of room with a king-size bed cost me $165 the night; meaning that I paid the equivalent of 23% of my monthly PhD student salary for 2 days of shelter (but for a Bozeman-lover like myself, it was totally worth it).

Anyhow, the story is the following. The two days I was in Bozeman, my boyfriend and I decided to run our own Yellowstone marathon. We would wake up early and hit the road to the park. Drive around the park, do as many hikes as possible, stop in all the absolutely incredible sights we wanted to see—and many more. Every night we would return to Bozeman around 10 pm, totally exhausted, yet extremely stimulated by so much geological and ecological magic. Each one of the two nights I had to decompress and spend at least 1 hour “digesting” everything that we had experienced. As a “normal” woman that I usually am not, I found that talking to the front desk girl at night about all my adventures was the most effective activity for processing the excitement and getting my system ready for bed.

During one of these nights of catharsis, while zipping on some local chamomile and mint tea (from the Bozeman tea House), a guy stumbled into the hotel’s lobby-type-of area. The man was white and tall. His clothes were covered in dirt and he was carrying a worn out travel journal. He looked as if he had just returned from an archaeological excavation. His gaze was a bit all over the place. He looked disoriented but his voice was full of energy.

“I’d like to stay the night here. Do you have internet? I am sure you have internet, this is a nice place. Do you have any rooms? Where is the computer?”

“I do have a basic room for tonight, sir. The rate for tonight is $194”.

“Yeah, that sounds good. Hererun,  this card. There is internet right?” The man handed her a credit card and avoided visual contact with her. He seemed to have difficulties focusing his attention.

“Yes sir, we do have internet, and the computer station is right over here to my right. Can I please see an ID?”

The man turned around and mumbled: “I don’t have my ID on me”.

“Then I can’t run this card, and I can’t place a reservation for you tonight. I am sorry.”

“Alright, then can you call another hotel? I just need internet… There is a Best Western in town right? Can you call them and ask if they take debit cards?”

“Yes sir, I can definitely do that”. The front desk lady got on the phone and called The Best Western hotel in town. She made sure to ask if they took debit cards. Just to be on the sure side she also asked if they required the individual to present his ID.

“I am sorry sir, but they do require you to show an ID along with the debit card”.

“Ah alright, then can you call me a taxi? And ask if they take debit cards. I will be waiting outside”.

“I will certainly do that sir”.

The man walked out to the guests’ porch where there was an outdoors fire place.

The front desk lady looked at me with a funny expression, I looked at her with an even weirder grin on my face, and we shared a moment of unspoken complicity.

1001, 1002, 1003… I broke the silence:

“That was something”.

To what she answered, “Well, it is very common to see homeless people in the summer in Montana… The weather is nice and there are so many free campsites that they can literally just live off the land for months”.

“Well, what happens to them when winter arrives? I don’t think there are enough shelter facilities or mental health clinics in Montana for them”, I said.

“You see, local governments usually just buy them ticket to go to Southern states, where it is warmer”,  she informed me.

Then, with the typical economist tone of cynicism I replied “Ha! And I guess that’s exactly what local governments in Southern states do in the summer when it is too hot for the homeless to survive without much additional help… buy them bus tickets to Montana!”.

In the end you have governments joggling homeless people around without really addressing their needs and certainly not exploring or approaching a solution to the structural reasons of the problem of homelessness in America. But at least urban residents are happy not having to deal with dead bodies in the street. (There is such a thing as the Montana Homeless Survey, for anyone interested in following up on this issue, I recommend starting here:

There is a joke among development economists who care for country-folks and are interested in boosting their living standards by improving the economic conditions in the rural areas. Essentially, the punchline of this joke is that instead of allocating many resources into the development of the rural sector, the government could just channel those funds to buy bus tickets and send the rural dwellers to the city, where they would find a job that paid more than whatever economic activity they used to perform in the farms. “Just buy them a bus ticket”, it is the cheap path to development… well, apparently, “just buying them a bus ticket” is also the cheap way to provide an urban environment free of complicated homeless issues.

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