Bogotá’s homeless: Down and about in the city

By bogotapost February 20, 2017
Homeless Bogotá, Bronx Bogotá, Bogotá's homeless

A homeless man reads the morning newspaper on the streets of Bogotá.

From addiction to displacement, there are many factors that push people to live on the street. Gerald Barr speaks to some of Bogotá’s homeless population so that they can tell some of their stories in their own words.

Bogotá’s homeless or street dwellers are known locally as mendigos, pordioseros or los desechables, ‘the disposables’, terms that sadly sum up their status in the minds of many citizens. Officially they inhabit ‘estrato cero’ – social strata zero – which I thought was a joke until I saw it written on an official document.

The local authorities call them ‘CHC’, Ciudadanos Habitantes de la Calle, and further categorise them into ‘en la calle’ (people who make their living on the street but sleep in shelters) and ‘de la calle’ (those shivering under a thin blanket on the street overnight). This is a fluid division since many street dwellers live in a state of flux. Their fortunes wax and wane, some days getting lucky and collecting enough coins to pay for a hostel bed, other days not.  Sometimes they might blow their earnings on a 2,000 peso twist of basuco – the low-grade coca paste that is a residue of cocaine labs – and end up in the rain again.

Street Violence Bogotá, Homelessness Bogotá

A pistolero shows me his pistol. All photos: Gerald Barr

According to the most recent census, dated from 2011, there are 9,600 CHCs in the city, but this is almost certainly a massive underestimate, especially since the data is now over five years old. An official at the local mayor’s office tasked with assisting them told me, “We know there is a lot more but exactly how many… Who knows?”

Keeping count of a constantly shifting population is not easy, especially when many of those in question reject authority and have mastered the art of disappearing in plain sight. Some street dwellers estimate the true figure to be around 40,000, but there is no hard data. Everyone seems to agree that there are many more than 10,000.

The same census gives the two main reasons for living rough as ‘family violence’ (44%) and ‘consumption of psychoactive substances’ (34%). It reports that 90% are male and nine out of ten are addicted to substances. The third reason on the list is ‘contextual aspects of the country’– the decades of civil strife that, according to 2016 figures from the UN, have left over seven million Colombians registered as displaced (on par with Syria). Of those, a high percentage have psychological problems; one study of families forcibly displaced showed that all suffered from long-term post-traumatic stress disorders.

homelessness bogotá, Bogotá's homelessGabriel, 76 years old, from Arauca. Displaced by the conflict. Came to Bogotá after a massacre in 2004 and has lived on the streets ever since.

I was working on farms when the paramilitaries came, they told us to leave or die. But we stayed, we didn’t want to lose our jobs. They came back and burned houses and killed around 15 people.

Some of us escaped by river, swimming. I had to leave everything behind. We found a truck to take us to Villavicencio, but weren’t safe there either so I took another truck to Bogotá. I have never been back to Arauca.

The first month in Bogotá was tough. I did not know how to survive or where to go. There was no one to help me. But after some time I learned the code of conduct for life on the streets, where to go and how to ask for money.

I lost contact with my friends and family. I have two daughters, and some grandchildren, but we lost contact many years ago. I have no resources to find them. Now I am alone.

There is not much friendship among people living in the street. The poor rob the poor. There are many bad people so I work alone trying to get money and food. Better alone than in bad company, I say. I need to get enough cash every day – at least 6,000 pesos – to pay for the hostel where I can stay the night, in a room just big enough to lie down.

I read newspapers at night. The country is changing but it will be difficult to heal. I sometimes talk to truck drivers from Arauca to see how things are there. My hope is one day to go home, but how to get the money? It’s a struggle.

The impact of internal displacement on the levels of homelessness in the country is almost impossible to quantify. Tens of thousands of families have been uprooted from all over the country. They frequently shift to the capital because the city is seen as the most tolerant towards displaced people, offering more chances to make a living. Plus there is less risk of falling victim to the infamous ‘social cleansing’ by death squads – the killing of people on the margins, known as fumigacion – that has plagued Colombian cities for many decades. As one street-dweller said: “Here I can be anonymous.”

Many have had to flee for their lives to escape massacres or death sentences imposed by paramilitary groups linked to the state. Such experiences mean they approach the local authorities with caution and are often too spooked to register for assistance. This fear is compounded by an inflexible bureaucratic system that requires you to fill in every small detail of your life – address, birth data, even where you were baptised – before you can get inside the door. So while the politicos play out the peace process on the world’ stage, forgotten victims of the conflict are shuffling through the shadows recycling our rubbish.

Life on the streets

These thoughts are rattling around my head as I set out to talk to some of Bogotá’s homeless. I don’t have to look far. I realise that these are people I see nearly every day, maybe throwing them a coin from time to time or a bag of old clothes on a cold night, but I had never before stopped to ask their name.

I was struck by the lack of self-pity as I discovered that each person has a different story of how they ‘fell into vice’, often told with humour and self-reflection.

homelessness bogotá, Bogotá's homelessCarlos, 55 years old, is originally from a Bari Motilón indigenous community in a remote part of Norte de Santander. He carries an oxygen bottle after a stab wound to the lung.

When I was eight years old the ELN guerrillas told my family I was to be prepared for life as a guerrilla. They were coming to take me. So I had to flee at night in the back of a truck to Cúcuta, then on to Cali where I lived on streets.

I never went to college. But I learned about life on the streets, and in jail – where I was always sent – because during that time I was a thug, robbing and attacking people.

Then around 30 years ago I had to flee to Bogotá. Cali was too dangerous with the social cleaning, the fumigaciones, street people were being killed. In Bogotá it was safer and I could start again.

I was working as a reciclador collecting scrap to sell, but one day four men attacked me for my bike. I did not let go so they stabbed me twice in the back, puncturing my lung.

The damage was permanent, so since then I have had to use an oxygen bottle. Now I collect money for helping to park cars on the street. The oxygen is paid for by the government as well as most of the medicines I need, since I have the Carta de las Habitantes de la Calle (Street Dweller Letter). I am officially estrato cero.

My aim was to speak to as wide a spectrum of the homeless population as possible, but I quickly found that only a small proportion were able to speak to me. This being because it is morally dubious, not to mention impractical, to try to interview a glue sniffer who is only semi-conscious.

I didn’t want to interview people who weren’t lucid enough to understand what I was doing and actively agree to have their comments published. That means the stories you will read are more from habitantes en la calle who are in a more stable stage of their lives, or at least having a more stable period.

Life on the streets usually comes in stages of descent, beginning with hard drinking (often adulterated alcohol called chirrinchi); to smoking marijuana and basuco (done by pistoleros); to smoking coca paste in pipes (done by piperos) or sniffing glue (a brand called Boxer). It is a vicious cycle, and breaking it often requires a tremendous amount of  on your own will-power or getting help from outside.

This help can come in the form of ambulatory and local hospital-based detox programs. Other organisations offer internships, overnight shelters, back-to-work schemes and psychosocial support. According to the mayor’s office, this is a holistic approach that sets out to tackle drug addiction as a health and social issue. But with so many street people, of whom an estimated 93% are substance-addicted, these limited resources don’t go far.

homelessness bogotá, Bogotá's homelessWilmer, 25 years old, from Bogotá.
Has lived on the city’s streets since he was a child.

My parents died in an accident when I was ten, and I had no other family to care for me so I lived on the streets.

I sell sweets to try and earn around 15,000 pesos a day, which is what I need to pay for a hostel bed and food. If I can’t get the money I sleep on a piece of cardboard on the street.

I usually walk the streets from 6am to 9pm to get cash. Sundays are the worst days – less people around so less money for the hostel. Last Sunday I had to sleep out.

The worst thing about sleeping on the streets is the cold. Also the police wake us up and move us on. Sometimes we get a good beating.

Last year I was attacked and stabbed. I was bleeding everywhere, but this time the police helped me and took me to hospital.

Sometimes I work, I can do some construction work, but I have not been able to do this for two years. I would like to go back to work.

Nowadays companies ask for photos and documents, a CV and a medical exam, but these cost money. I spend all the money I earn on food and the hostel, there is nothing left over for other things.

“It’s a hugely complex response to a massively complex problem,” an outreach worker tells me. One problem, he points out, is that many CHCs avoid help. A law passed in 2015 to protect their rights also prevents the state from forcing them into treatment programs. In fact the police are also officially prevented from obstructing or moving any street person from their chosen site. This regulation has infuriated shop and business owners in areas where street people congregate such as Santa Fe and Los Mártires.

These frustrations boiled over last year after the city mayor sent the police and army into the Bronx, Bogotá’s largest downtown olla (literally ‘cooking pot’ but figuratively ‘vice den’), which consisted of a few streets inhabited by drug gangs and rife with violence. The massive operation mysteriously failed to catch any major kingpins (the rumours are that corrupt cops tipped them off) but did manage to scatter Bogotá’s homeless and drug dealers into nearby business sectors.

“Let’s hope the social response is as clean and efficient as the military operations,” said one media commentator, though of course it wasn’t. In fact, not one social services department was briefed to prepare for the outcome. The resulting friction with local communities who didn’t want Bogotá’s homeless people on their doorsteps lead some politicians to predict a return of the abhorrent fumigaciones of recent decades.

homelessness bogotá, Bogotá's homelessMauricio, ‘El Gato’, 50 years old from Bogotá.
He was a heavy user of basuco (cocaine residue) and slept rough for many years but has since gone through a treatment program.

I got into drugs out of curiosity, to see the effects. I started as a pistolero, smoking basuco in cigarettes, which is OK, the effects are not so strong, but then I became a pipero, using a pipe.

Smoking a pipe takes away hunger, and can go five days without sleeping, but your condition deteriorates very fast. You are fearless. The piperos are the guys you see stepping off the pavement into fast traffic, they don’t care.

But you can make more money begging as a pipero, you smell so bad and your clothes are so ragged that shops and restaurants throw money at you to move on.

Sleeping rough is dangerous. One night I slept in front of a garage and a car nearly ran me over. Some people get killed, stabbed, maybe by other street people. In Bogotá the most dangerous places for street people are the poorer outlying barrios, that’s where they die fastest. That’s why many prefer the city centre as they can stay safer.

There is often conflict between gomelos, the glue sniffers, and the piperos, and many people carry knives. I never back down from a fight, even if they have knives. You have to stand your ground.

I got off the drugs through an intern program run by social services. I was an intern for six months, in a large centre with good facilities, we got clothes, bedding and food, but had to do many workshops. I ended up as a voluntary outreach worker at the Hospital Santa Clara, helping other addicts. Now I park cars in the street and stay in a hostel most nights.

But I am still vulnerable and have severe withdrawal symptoms, such as fever and anxiety. I refuse to take the pills from the hospital to treat this, they turn you into a zombie. I prefer to live real.

From time to time I fall back into vice, but only drinking chirrinchi, cheap liquor, it’s only COP$2,000 for a bottle. But I never drink around my kids, I want to be a good example.

Addiction and violence

With such high levels of addiction amongst Bogotá’s homeless population, the question arises: where do all the drugs come from? The answer is a local drug market that the government estimates is worth over COP$6,000 billion.

The top of this pyramid of misery is dominated by the same drug capos that export refined cocaine overseas. Just as with coffee, there are ‘domestic’ and ‘export’ grades of coca. Ironically, it is the disruption of cartel export routes that has led to large quantities of the low-grade drugs flooding home markets. And vulnerable street people are the soft target for these peddlers.

Those living on the street are also the targets of violence. While most well-heeled rolos live in fear of beggars, those on the street are more often the attacked, robbed, and murdered. Going back to the 2011 census, it shows that more than half had suffered serious injuries, such as stabbings. 60% have been robbed, more than 75% beaten and almost a third forced off their land. And in Bogotá the homicide rate for street people is at least 15 times higher than for other people.

Violent situations for Bogotá homeless population

Types of violence:

Street Violence Bogotá, Homelessness Bogotá, Bogotá's homeless

Percentage of surveyed to which action happened. Source: Secretaría de Integración Social de Colombia.

Beatings given by:

Street Violence Bogotá, Homelessness Bogotá, Bogotá's homeless

Percentage of surveyed to which action happened. Source: Secretaría de Integración Social de Colombia.

It’s small wonder that several of my interviewees expressed fear rather than solidarity with those in a similar situation: the report shows that a quarter of these crimes had been committed by other CHCs. Those who form part of estrato cero live in constant distrust of the outside world and of those within their own “community”.

Should we automatically see estrato cero as victims? Some commentators suggest that street life can be an alternative, interesting and fulfilling existence. True, most of the people I spoke to were in good humour and took pride in many aspects of their lives, and one detects a certain machismo in sleeping out, dodging the authorities and avoiding the help programs.

homelessness bogotá, Bogotá's homelessWilliam, 55 years old, originally from Ibagué, Tolima.
His life was first disrupted when, at eight years old, his father threw him and his mother out of the house.

In Bogotá I worked in construction but the bosses never paid us, so I ended up broke and fell into vice, taking basuco. Now I’ve been on the streets for many years, usually sleeping out, sometimes in hostels. Lately I have been sleeping out in the cold. Last month the police came and took all my blankets, it was raining, but they threw my blankets into the back of a rubbish truck.

I used to visit the Bronx, and Cartucho before it was knocked down, to get drugs. It is good they also cleared the Bronx, it was a terrible place where gangs fed people to dogs or dissolved them in acid. These are not rumours, the stories are real. I know.

I have been to jail three times, once for six months for neglecting my children. I couldn’t feed them, I had no work and no money. So they sent me to jail. My kids are grown up now, but I lost touch with them five years ago. It’s sad I can’t see them.

Some days I recycle rubbish to get money. I work alone, you can’t trust other people on the streets, some will stab you for money. But I do have friends and we meet up, every few weeks. Then I fall back into the vice again, sometimes for a week.

I know street people who have found a job, got married. They have a life. There are programs for street people to get off the drugs, but these are internships, which I don’t like. I’d rather live my own live, and with God’s help will get off the drugs and find work.

But dig a bit deeper and everyone I talked to is looking for a way up and out. What hurts most is losing contact with friends and family, living without knowing where one’s children or grandchildren are (or even knowing if they are still alive). Several of the interviewees told me how much they missed their families, while others spoke of the difficulties of living in the cold and living in fear of violence. Get clean, get work, get back to the family, was a comment I heard from several people. But invisible barriers, such as the tentacles of addiction, mental health problems or the scars of violence, hold them back.

And while Bogotá might be more tolerant of homeless people than other Colombian cities, there is no over-abundance of sympathy. Local media portrayed the city under zombie attack in the aftermath of the Bronx operation with hardly any examination of the complex web of social issues that keep people on the streets. CHCs are stigmatised as a menace, helpless, or sometimes as romantic restless souls.

Does street life hark back to some sense of freedom in mankind’s nomadic soul? I throw the question out. One laughs: “Not really. I may live freely on the streets, but I am a slave to the drugs.”

By Gerald Barr