BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Smiling two-year-old Valentina Aleman races down a sidewalk in Buenos Aires, dodging cardboard boxes, a worn out couch and a broken refrigerator without noticing that the cars are dangerously approaching her and that others risk living on the streets.
A makeshift tent made of cardboard boxes and plastic bags on the edge of a busy avenue in the Argentinian capital serves as a shelter for the girl, her four siblings and her parents, who sleep sharing two old mattresses on concrete.
“Being here with (the children) is not pleasant. The main risk is their health, ”said Valentina’s mother, Damiana, as the children played with used toys. “They want to watch TV. My oldest asks why we can’t be home with our TV and our bed.
Families living on the streets outside shopping malls, bus stations and parks have become increasingly common in Buenos Aires, as an economic crisis, soaring inflation and soaring utility bills fueled by austerity measures have left more people unable to afford a house. The long-standing crisis worsened in 2018 when the Argentine peso lost about half of its value following a currency rush.
The number of people living in extreme poverty in Argentina’s capital – the country’s richest region – has doubled in the past three years to 6.5 percent, or around 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 estimate the figure at around 8,000.
Argentines continue to lose their 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 to public services and public transport. On average, over the past year, natural gas has increased by 77.6%, electricity by 46% and water by 26%.
Eight months ago, the Aleman family became unable to cope with soaring utility costs. The family paid approximately $ 112 per month in rent. Their finances collapsed when they received a $ 246 electricity bill. Then Valentina’s father, Emilio, lost his job at a furniture factory that closed in the midst of the crisis.
“Seven in ten families see the cost of public services as a problem for their national finances,” said Matias Barroetavena, director of the Center of Metropolitan Studies, a research center based in Buenos Aires.
Poverty reduction is still on the to-do list for Macri, who entered the last 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 had to be judged on its ability to reduce poverty. “Zero poverty” has become one of its main goals.
But poverty in Argentina rose to 32% of the population in the second half of 2018, against 27.3% in the first half, the official statistics agency INDEC announced Thursday.
“I trusted him when he said ‘zero poverty’. It looked like he would support 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-breaking financing deal with the International Monetary Fund. The decision brought back bad memories to Argentines who blame the IMF for introducing policies that led to the country’s worst crisis in 2001, when one in five Argentines fell out of work and millions slipped into poverty.
Macri says he underestimated the macroeconomic imbalances inherited from his populist predecessor, center-left president Cristina Fernandez. He argues that correcting them became more difficult when Argentina’s worst drought in decades deprived its government of much-needed agricultural export revenues. Argentina’s economy has also been hit by “external factors” including the trade war between the United States and China, he said.
Macri’s popularity has plummeted. Fernandez is tied with him in most polls, although she faces numerous investigations into corruption allegations during his 2007-2015 administration.
A poll conducted in Buenos Aires and its suburbs showed that 65 percent of those polled 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 interviewed 1,523 people between February 26 and March 2 in a poll that had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
The Buenos Aires shelters are at full capacity. But since most are divided by sex, families often prefer to stay on the streets rather than go their separate ways.
And it’s not just the homeless asking for beds in shelters. Suburban dwellers are increasingly choosing to stay in town Monday through Friday to avoid spending on public transport. Workers who earn the minimum wage of around $ 280 a month are estimated to spend 10 percent of their wages on public transport, according to estimates from the Buenos Aires Ombudsman’s Office.
The Alemans now rely on the money Emilio recovers for the collection of cardboard boxes and recyclable waste, meals in soup kitchens and on the generosity of local residents. However, not all sympathize. Some called the police to remove them from the sidewalk.
“When people live on the streets, they feel like they are 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 the homeless. Avila himself was 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 says to people, laughing.
Garcia has lived on the street in a bourgeois neighborhood in Buenos Aires for four years since he lost an administrative job. Today, he survives by repairing household appliances or taking them apart to sell the leftovers and shares the makeshift hut with Maria Ortega, a 77-year-old retiree.
Garcia also believed his living conditions would improve after the change of government.
“The government gives you the option of being off the streets for five or six months. It’s not a solution, ”the 57-year-old said of government housing subsidies.
“At least I don’t get any bills here,” Garcia said before returning to his shelter.