MEXICO CITY - Meo and Julio live under an overhang outside Saint Dismis chapel on busy El Salvador Street in the Historic Center of this conflictive megalopolis. Meo spends most of the day and night flat on his back, wrapped in a burlap sack, and howling at those who pass by for coins. Julio, much Meo's junior, does not say much. A newcomer to these mean streets, he seems to be suffering from clinical depression - a condition not much helped by daily binges of glue-sniffing and rotgut alcohol.
Meo and Julio are members of this swarming capital's uncounted legion of the homeless. Although those who make the street their home have, thus far, not been quantified, there is little doubt that Mexico's continuing economic crisis has caused their numbers to swell: the number of indigents taken in by the city's "Winter Shelter" jumped 500% this past December - and most of Mexico City's homeless do not sleep in the shelter system.
Neighborhood parks and marketplaces, bus terminals and the steps of locked Metro stations are more popular habitats for the unsheltered. Some of the homeless are very young - Alliance House, a private social agency that focuses on street children, estimates that 10,000 homeless waifs are adrift on the streets of Mexico City. And some are very old - Meo says he is 70 on some days (on others, he claims to be 500 years old).
Meo and Julio have little use for the Winter Shelter, a factory-like building, reeking of disinfectant, in the old quarter's El Carmen neighborhood, that sleeps 270 indigents a night. "The government is corrupt! Just a bunch of thieves and rats!" the old man hollers when asked if he would like to be taken to the shelter, "I'm better off right here." Julio says nothing.
Despite their damaged conditions, Meo and Julio are quite lucky to still be alive this winter. Heavy snowfall during Christmas week blanketed Maguey cactuses in central Mexico - 13 indigents living on the capital's streets died of hypothermia or respiratory disease between Christmas and the first week of 1996, according to the city's Forensic Services. And if the cold does not permanently maim the street dweller's health, Mexico City's killer contamination will. Pollution levels have been in the danger zone every day of the new year and the capital has already had at least one "environmental emergency" in 1996.
Before lying down in front of Saint Dismis, Meo says he slept beneath the archways in the capital's great Zocalo plaza where many government offices are housed. Each night, 50 men and women would curl up on foraged cardboard and wrap themselves in plastic and old newspapers against the cold, on either side of the velvet rope that demarcates the upscale "La Vecindad" discotheque - until management complained to authorities about the foul smell. An elite police battalion known as "Transition 2000" dislodged the transients, shaking them awake in the middle of the night and informing the indigents that they could not sleep "opposite City Hall," Meo did not much like the Zocalo anyway, he confesses - "there was no privacy and the kids from the dance hall would come and piss on you!" he glowers maniacally.
Much as in U.S. cities like New York, Washington D.C., and San Francisco, where homelessness has become chronic, the Mexican capital suddenly finds itself with a throbbing homeless headache. Many of the issues associated with the homeless here are similar to those faced by North American cities. For one matter, no one knows how many people are actually living on the street. The Mexico City Social Protection Administration counts only 12,000 indigents, based on figures from the six shelters it runs - but concedes that it is only serving 12-14% of the capital's homeless (a census is planned).
Dr. Arnoldo Kraus, a critic of government policies directed at the poor, who contributes regularly to the national daily "La Jornada," calculates that at least 100,000 unsheltered are roaming the city's streets each night - the Mexico City metropolitan area contains a population of 20 million and the capital is a traditional magnet for the poor from the provinces. "The situation has gotten more desperate" since the crisis began in December 1994, he concludes
Like homeless services north of the border, Social Protection scrapes by on what funding the crisis-crippled federal government can provide. And like US.-side metropolises, the Mexico City agency wants to send its homeless back to where they came from - director Quirino Ordaz estimates that 85% of the capital's indigents come from outside of the city - and wants feeder states to take more responsibility for its poorest citizens.
As in U.S. cities, a large number of those who bed down on the Mexican capital's streets are mentally ill or alcohol and/or drug dependent - Ordaz claims 99% of those served by his shelters are psychologically impaired. How to handle homeless indigents who refuse to go to city shelters is a common quandary, too. Each night, Social Protection vans scour the streets for the hidden homeless, enticing them off the concrete with offers of food and health care and a warm bed, but many of the unsheltered value their freedom more than these creature comforts. Indeed, five of the six city shelters, or "Houses of Protection," are quasi- psychiatric facilities, and patients have little access to the outside world. Dr. Kraus, echoing homeless advocates up north, argues that no one should be forced to exchange the streets for a shelter - even if it is for their own protection: "the dignity of the homeless must be respected."
But death on Mexico City's streets is hardly dignified. Last July 15th, 75-year-old Joel Rosas lay dying on a residential doorstep in the Santa Maria Tomatlan colony of the working class Ixtapalapa borough of the city. Concerned neighbors summoned agency after agency to his aid. The Red Cross and the Police were called but failed to show up. Two ambulance services refused to take Rosas to a hospital because he smelled of alcohol. One service refused to come to the scene, claiming its ambulance was low on gasoline and hospitals did not accept patients "of this type." "Give him another drink" the dispatcher advised.
Finally, exasperated neighbors telephoned the Mexico City Human Rights Commission to question city agencies' refusal to help the old man. The second time they called the Commission, it was to inform investigators that Rosas had died. In its autumn 1995 report, the Commission chided the Mexico City government for failing to attend to Rosas, underscoring that health care is a constitutionally-protected right, regardless of the patient's perceived state of mind.
In a "La Jornada" column entitled "To Die In The Street," Dr. Kraus called Rosas "a victim of neo-liberal policies." "In the last ten years, the poor have gotten poorer and sicker," he said in a recent telephone interview, "the minimum salary is now less than it was in 1986 and social protections have been taken away. This deepening impoverishment is due to the government's failed neo-liberal policies."
The statistics bear out Dr. Kraus' thesis that the poor are growing in number and desperation. This December, the Winter Shelter housed 3005 indigents. In December 1994, as the current economic downturn kicked in with the devaluation of the peso, the city took in only 774 homeless citizens.
Now the Mexican government's free market bias is liable to produce a fresh surge in the unhoused population: as of January 1st, rents for tens of thousands of the city's poorest families, chiefly in the central city, were unfrozen - rents were locked in place 50 years ago by presidential decree to protect low-income families. Some rent raises have been as great as 1,000,000%, affirms the Assembly of Neighborhoods ("Asemblea de Barrios"). 10 to 12,000 families in the city's Historic Center alone are at risk of eviction, attests Assembly director, Javier Hidalgo: "they will have no place to go but the streets."
But if a roof (or an overhang) over one's head is a criterion for homelessness, Mexico City has a few mitigating factors that northern cities might want to consider. Just down the street from the Winter Shelter is an encampment of "damnifacados" who lost their homes in the tragic 1985 earthquake here. Although made homeless by natural disaster ten years ago, the city-built encampment's tin shacks are now home for 50 families. Other improvised housing includes evicted tenants who simply set up tents on the sidewalks in front of the apartments they once occupied. Out in the Santa Fe colony in western Mexico City, impoverished residents have lived for years in old mining caves, and others, like the Hernandez family near Texcoco, take refuge under ancient Aztec ruins, eking out a living picking up empty beer cans. Itinerant construction workers from the provinces find sanctuary in the unfinished structures they are building. Others, unfettered by zoning and building code regulations that dictate housing construction in the U.S., build cardboard and tin lean- tos in a corner of a family compound or out on the open street, and call it home.
Family solidarity is much stronger in Mexico than in the U.S. and Europe, Dr. Kraus observes. "The truth is that Mexicans are much more humane than northern cultures. We don't kick our people out in the street if they have personal problems. If we have a quarter of a meter of roof to sleep under, we will invite you in - in the barrios, we share the poverty."
But even the vaunted family structure that Dr. Kraus sees as a vaccine against rampant homelessness may now be buckling under the weight of the deepest economic recession in 64 years. Social Protection reports large numbers of old people in the population the agency serves - as much as 85% in some shelters. Many, say social workers, have been abandoned by their families and allowed to wander homeless on the streets of Mexico City, in the hope that protection agencies will take them in and care for them.
Is Meo one of these senior citizens turned loose by his family because they could longer tend to his needs? When this reporter returned to the overhang outside Saint Dismis chapel recently, the old man was gone. A discarded blanket lay strewn amidst the trash. I asked Julio where his partner had gone. As usual, Julio said nothing.
John Kenneth Turner wrote MEXICO BARBARO as the Diaz dictatorship was crumbling back in 1910. John Ross reincarnates MEXICO BARBARO as the PRI dictatorship comes tumbling down nearly 90 years later. © 1996 by John Ross. Please do not reproduce before end of period in