Jesuit-run soup kitchen mirrors growing economic gap in Buenos Aires
Catholic News Service
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — On a rainy morning, not far from the upscale shopping strip of Santa Fe Avenue with its abundant window displays and name-brand stores, the blue door of the Works of San Jose opened for the second seating of its daily breakfast.
In the dining room some 80 homeless and working poor, mostly men, had finished their breakfast and, reluctant to venture out into the rain, were milling about in the entry and hallways of the building belonging to the Jesuit Fathers. Eighty more were getting ready to sit down for the second seating.
Though the Argentine government likes to tout a decrease in the poverty level in this resources-rich country, community workers say the opposite is true. The gap between the haves and have-nots are increasing, they say, and while some segments of society enjoy economic wealth, others from the lower and middle classes are finding themselves left out of the government's self-proclaimed prosperity.
In Buenos Aires alone there are at least 20,000 homeless people. Some are homeless due to drug abuse, but more people from interior provinces have come to the nation's capital in search of work, only to find themselves facing unemployment and life in the streets.
"With the economic crisis of the country, people began coming (to Buenos Aires) from the provinces and have become garbage scavengers," said Jesuit Father Salvador Veron, spiritual coordinator for the Works of San Jose. "We are seeing an increase in street people due to a combination of lack of work and also a disintegration of the family due to the influence of drugs and alcohol."
Sometimes, if he is unable to find work, the male breadwinner of a family feels ashamed because he cannot support his family, so he leaves them, he added.
Though the numbers in the government's national poverty index point to less poverty in the streets, those numbers can, and are, manipulated to show any desired reality, the priest said.
He noted that 10 years ago the Jesuits helped run two soup kitchens; now they maintain four throughout the Buenos Aires area.
Begun as a volunteer project by parents of the El Salvador Jesuit School, today the project also includes a hostel at another location and includes some 70 volunteers who help out in the soup kitchen. The project also offers literacy programs and vocational training workshops, including electricity, baking and handicrafts, partially funded by the city of Buenos Aires. The project also includes a used clothes depository and counseling with social workers.
"Whoever rings the bell is welcome," said Araceli Baenninger, a volunteer for 16 years and now general coordinator at the center. "We only ask that when they come to the dining room there be no drugs, alcohol or fighting. We ask that this place be different than the streets, the codes here are different. This place needs to be a place of meeting, a family place."
In recent years volunteers have seen a change in the people who come to the center, said Baenninger, and staffers now feed more women and many more young people.
"We really see more people in a situation of unemployment, and more youth involved in drugs and alcohol," said Baenninger.
Hernan Della Giustila, 38, came to Buenos Aires two years ago from the province of Entre Rios, hoping to be able to find work. He was only able to find sporadic day work, and though he usually is able to scrape by every month with enough money to rent a small apartment, there is not much left over for his other expenses, such as food, he said. He blames workers who come to Argentina from neighboring countries for driving down the salaries in his job market, because they are willing to do more work for less money than Argentine workers.
"I made a decision I thought was right, but instead it turned out badly," he said.
In Argentina, street people do not go hungry, because hotels and chain restaurants leave out their leftovers for them to scavenge. But the Works of San Jose provides them not only with food but a bit of dignity by giving them an opportunity for showers and shaves, noted volunteer Cristina Creydt, 69.
"There is a lot of dignity given to people here. They just don't give them food," she said. "I have received a lot more here than I have given."
For the most part the Works of San Jose has functioned solely through private donations, and each meal depends on what has been donated.
Baenninger recalled how a young woman drug user who used to come to the center returned recently to greet her. After years of being on the street, she had gone through rehabilitation and had finally been able to gain back custody of her two children; she was working as a saleswoman in a shoe shop.
A case like that is one in a million, Baenninger acknowledged, but makes the work of the center worthwhile.