26 novembro 2015

Volunteering in "Conversa Amiga": Dea's testimony

"One homeless - One friend, Conversation is what makes us human!". This is the motto at Conversa Amiga, an organization established about 10 years ago, based on offering tea and conversation to the people living in the streets. 

Gradually, they came with the idea of building lockers in public spaces, where the homeless could leave the few things they carry with them, secured with a key. They started with only 12 lockers in Lisbon and now the demand is high. With the lockers you establish a trust relationship between organizations and the homeless and perhaps the most touching phrase I heard during the training we had at Conversa Amiga were the words of a man of the street stating that with the lockers his 100 kilo problem of not having a home, changed to a 40 kilos one. Building lockers is a concrete action that impacts the homeless directly, besides the conversation as a means to counteract loneliness, and has started to be copied around the world. As a volunteer first time catching midnight conversing with people in the streets I was both anxious and with a need to fill in the imense void in my stomach when thinking my own bed is actually a luxury for many. 



The first stop was at Manu (fictional name), I saw him lying on a mattress next to a closed market and he immediately caught my attention. A black man maybe in his 50's, wearing a stylish black suit and a flax shirt, a black cap and no shoes, just matching socks. The team approached him with a smile and the big pot of tea. He is a man with troubles, they say, and he dislikes women. "Manu, do you want some tea?" " yea, why not?" He replies. I sit down next to his mattress and I'm looking for eye contact. Manu has this remarkable humanity in his eyes, coming from the depth of something I cannot name and I'm afraid most individualistic societies lost it. All of us in the team are women and I'm somehow thinking that if I'm new maybe he won't be that open. He starts comparing women with squids hiding in the sand, opening tentacles to catch the men fish, than he jumps in talks about his "bebe", a daughter he has, and how she used to call him pai ( dad in English). I learn he had once a wife and that he was a teacher, teaching kids, maybe that's why I identify a childish sparkle in his look every now and than. Manu is terribly gifted with words, and gestures like an inborn performer. He could easily be on the stage of a theater. Besides women, he also hates cats, so often he makes no difference whatsoever between the two species. He looks at me, notices my iPad is facing him and adds " but this cat is pretty".  One of the girls in the team asks him why he is always dressed so nice. He replies :" because it is important for self esteem!". At some point, another black man appears. His name is Andres (fictional name) and sings Bob Marley's piece "no woman no cry", out of his lungs as loud as he can. He is on the street for 2 weeks more or less ( a lot more than Manu) and he doesn't want to sleep in a shelter. Manu became nervous when Andres appeared, threw a green blanket in the direction of a half empty bottle of wine. He didn't  want to receive Andres in his corner and when i looked closer I saw at the other end of the mattress there was already someone else, a young man, maybe in his early 20's. Andres became a little aggressive so we decided it was time to go. 

On our way to our next conversation I learned that Manu has a  prejudice against black people, more like an inferiority complex, and he often says black people are always against each other. I couldn't say if he misses Capo verde, his birthplace, or not, and whether he wouldn't receive Andres because he is from Jamaica. Soon, we find Senhor Carlos(fictional name). The girls pour some tea. " I had a room right here...right here", he pinpoints at a nearby building.  But he was thrown out, the team tries to identify why his social agent let him down. Carlos pulls from his cigar with an avid thirst and an even greater sadness. At every attempt of convincing him to go back to a shelter he says " I prefer to stay here! In the shelter, you go in it and they ll throw you out through the back door". Than he recalls how his social agent got scared of a rroma man punching a table and he says" but I am Portuguese, i am not a gipsy!".   "Senhor Carlos, let's put you in a shelter, there can be better shelters" " No! I wanna stay here! I go to the market every morning from here, is close". Than, as the moon came back from the dark clouds, I noticed a tear is coming out in the corner of his eye. A tear drop in the corner of the eye of a man living in the corner of the street, I think to myself as I struggle not to cry. His stubbornness is more the pride of a man who doesn't trust society and therefore denies everything connected or coming from it. The girls promise him an investigation on why he left the room in the shelter and that they will have a talk with the social agent. They tell me afterwards that the situation is tricky, that sometimes you can't find out the truth from the men in street or that the truth is only partially served. 



Carlos is on the street for 2 months already and most probably the shelters he tried so far were the ones with a not so good reputation. By far though, the one who impressed me the most was Antonio (fictional name). We found him after we walked a couple of streets more. I had to put the camera down, a woman with a clear aversion towards the cameras was sleeping there behind some paper boxes, and the girls advised me to put it behind. Antonio apparently is almost completely new to the streets of Lisbon. I am struck by his perfect English and his polite ways. He is about 1.90 m in height, is wearing a mountain like gear, a blue backpack and has a plastic bag with other things in it. He likes snow just in the mountains though, not outside his home. If he wasn't around the streets at that hour I could have never guessed he is one of  the homeless. He comes from Poland, and is born in 1986, the same year as I was born. Young, I think to myself, how could he have ended up in the streets of Lisbon? " He lights a cigarette than says, sorry, I didn't ask you if it bothers you, do you mind if I smoke?". We say it's alright and he looks in the distance, with Jesus image represented on a one meter cross just behind his shoulder. There are some screams coming from the streets, the result of a football game perhaps, so we strike a small conversation. " do you like football Antonio? " No, I prefer basketball, I stopped playing football when I missed placing the ball from 2 meters." He has a shy smile when he recalls the event. " Do you want a shelter? " " No, I found a roof on Martim Moniz, but I'm not alone, other people sleep there. I don't want a social shelter. There are people doing drugs in there.." Are you scared of them Antonio? " Yes, of course I am!". 




Antonio ended up in Lisbon after someone told him there are ships from China that come first to portugal so there are jobs in the harbor. He never found what he was looking for, so when he was left without a penny he ended up in the streets. He also has a psychological illness that keeps him from sleeping and that's why he lost his job in Poland. He says: " I get misguided information from all sides and I don't know where to go. I need at least a locker to place my things while I'm looking for a job, and I found a shower to wash myself. I can sleep on the streets but I need a shower, otherwise Is rather uncomfortable if I find a job ..portugal is warmer than Poland ... I like it here". I look at one of the girls in the team and I can see how hard it is for her to find the right way of presenting a temporary answer. Eventually she says: " You know Antonio, we are sorry, but we can not help you with a locker now, there is a long waiting list and perhaps in a few weeks something will be free. But we can help you with other things, paper and embassy related, and we can establish a new meeting soon at an hour that is convenient to you." Antonio though does not have money for public transport at all so he comes up with a solution " if the place of meeting is not far away, I can walk for 2 hours until I get there, but definitely not at noon...I'm having lunch at a church I found.  Should I?...Should I what? " He loses his words for a short while..." Thanks for the tea, will it be a long meeting? If you help me find a job I rather have one with low human interaction. I have access to internet in the evenings, you can contact me by email." Than he goes on speaking about Cracow ..a beautiful city just before he departs to his roof in Martim Moniz. 

We ended the night reflecting on our encounters with the team from Conversa Amiga, a thing that they do after every night spent in the streets, twice a month. I find out there is a young man named Mauricio(fictional name), a dancer from Africa, talented, knowledgable and cultural, who was once homeless. The team from Conversa Amiga helped him find a place to stay after the company that took him on board dissolved and he collapsed mentally. He now gives performances and offers long talks to any that stop by in the park late at night. I hope I will get him next time when we are out for conversations and support, to those whom are lonely and forgotten by society. Besides the whole experience with Conversa Amiga who's doing a great job, I liked the fact that in Lisbon there are lots of volunteers offering food to the homeless and right as we were stepping out of our work, other volunteers were stepping in bringing warm food and warm greetings.



Dea

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