BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — A smiling, two-year-old Valentina Aleman runs down a sidewalk in Buenos Aires, dodging boxes, a worn sofa and a broken refrigerator without noticing that cars are getting dangerously close to her and others – risks of living on the streets.
A makeshift tent made of cardboard boxes and plastic bags along a busy avenue in the Argentine capital serves as shelter for the young girl, her four siblings and her parents, who sleep sharing two old mattresses placed on the concrete.
“Being here with (the children) is not pleasant. The main risk is their health,” Valentina’s mother, Damiana, said as the children played with used toys. “They want to watch TV. My eldest asks why we can’t be home with our TV and our bed.
Families living on the streets outside malls, bus stations and parks have become an increasingly common sight in Buenos Aires as an economic crisis, runaway inflation and soaring utility bills public spending fueled by austerity measures have left more and more people unable to afford a house. The long-running crisis deepened in 2018 when the Argentinian peso lost about half of its value following a run on the currency.
The number of people living in extreme poverty in the Argentine capital – the country’s richest region – has doubled in the past three years to 6.5%, or about 198,000 people, according to official figures. The Buenos Aires city government has yet to release the homeless count for the end of 2018, but local civic groups put the figure at around 8,000.
Argentines continue to lose purchasing power due to an inflation rate that reached 47.6% last year, the highest since 1991, and many are frustrated by the decision of the government of President Mauricio Macri reduce subsidies for public services and public transport. On average, over the past year, natural gas has jumped 77.6%, electricity 46% and water 26%.
Eight months ago, the Aleman family became unable to cope with soaring utility costs. The family was paying about $112 a month in rent. Their finances collapsed when they received a $246 electricity bill. Then Valentina’s father, Emilio, lost his job in a furniture factory that closed during the crisis.
“Seven out of 10 families see the cost of utilities as a problem for their household finances,” said Matias Barroetavena, director of the Center for Metropolitan Studies, a Buenos Aires-based research center.
Poverty reduction is still on the to-do list for Macri, who entered the final year of his presidential term and launched a re-election bid for the October vote.
When Macri took office in 2015, he said his administration should be judged on its ability to reduce poverty. “Zero poverty” has become one of its main objectives.
But poverty in Argentina rose to 32% of the population in the second half of 2018, from 27.3% in the first half, the official statistics agency INDEC said on Thursday.
“I trusted him when he said ‘zero poverty’. It looked like he would stand with the poor,” Aleman said. “But Macri actually meant getting rid of the poor, rather than improving the economy.”
Following the devaluation of the peso last year, Argentina was forced to seek a record financing deal with the International Monetary Fund. The move brought back bad memories for Argentines who blame the IMF for introducing policies that led to the country’s worst crisis in 2001, when one in five Argentines became unemployed and millions sunk into poverty.
Macri says he underestimated the macroeconomic imbalances inherited from his populist predecessor, center-left president Cristina Fernandez. He argues that fixing them became more difficult when Argentina’s worst drought in decades deprived its government of much-needed agricultural export revenue. Argentina’s economy has also been hit by “external factors”, including the trade war between the United States and China, he said.
Macri saw his popularity rating plummet. Fernandez is tied with him in most polls, although she faced numerous probes into corruption allegations during her 2007-2015 administration.
A poll conducted in Buenos Aires and its suburbs showed that 65% of respondents said their income was not enough to make ends meet. Fifty-two percent said they reduced their food intake as a result. The Center of Metropolitan Studies polled 1,523 people between February 26 and March 2 in a poll that had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
Buenos Aires shelters are at capacity. But since most are divided by gender, families often prefer to stay on the streets rather than separate.
And it’s not just the homeless who are asking for beds in shelters. Suburban residents are increasingly choosing to stay in town Monday through Friday to avoid spending on public transport. Workers earning the minimum wage of around $280 a month are estimated to spend 10% of their salary on public transportation, according to estimates from the Buenos Aires Ombudsman’s office.
The Alemanni are now counting on the money that Emilio receives for the collection of cardboard boxes and recyclable waste, meals in soup kitchens and on the generosity of local residents. Not everyone sympathizes, however. Some called the police to pull them off the sidewalk.
“When people live on the streets, they feel like they’re a waste of space, like they deserve to be there. Your opinion of yourself is so low,” said Horacio Avila, a social psychologist who co-founded Project 7, which provides assistance to homeless people. Avila himself has been homeless for over 10 years.
Leaning over an igloo-like structure made of layers of fabric and plastic attached to a supermarket car, Hector Garcia jokes with passers-by.
“You keep laughing, you’ll be next to me soon,” he sometimes tells people with a laugh.
Garcia has lived down the street in a middle-class neighborhood in Buenos Aires for four years since losing an administrative job. Nowadays, he survives by repairing household appliances or dismantling them to resell the scraps. He shares the makeshift cabin with 77-year-old retiree Maria Ortega.
Garcia also believed that his living conditions would improve after the change of government.
“The government gives you the opportunity to get off the streets for five or six months. This is not a solution,” the 57-year-old said of government housing subsidies.
“At least I don’t get bills here,” Garcia said before returning to his dugout.