San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Living on the Streets of San José, (Part one in a two-part series about San José’s

IN the Coca-Cola bus station in western San José onerecent morning, backpack-laden tourists bought tickets,paradise at their fingertips: pristine beaches, lava-spoutingpeaks, the eerie silence of the cloud forest. Ready to bearthem away to their chosen destinations, buses hummed andcoughed in waiting rows.Afew hundred meters away, Leonardo, 52, struggled tohis feet in a trash-strewn vacant lot. He fell backward ontoan unconscious man behind him, stood again, and boweddeeply from the waist.“I may be an old drunk, but I have good manners,” hesaid, surrounded by clumps of grass, discarded bottles, anda yellow, short-haired dog he calls La Macha (Blondie).“People are wrong about us (the homeless). We aren’t illiterate.My mother always said, ‘The more humble you are,the more intelligent.’”He buried his face in his hands.LEONARDO is one of a growing number of homelesspeople on the streets of the nation’s capital. The neighborhoodsurrounding the Coca-Cola is one of the areas wherethe problem is most immediately evident, and certainlywhere Costa Rica’s booming tourist industry stands instarkest contrast to the realities of city life.Just a block from Leonardo’s hangout and steps fromthe bus travel hub, a fire raged in the center of the street where a neighborhood guard burned thehomeless people’s bedding and rags in aneffort to get them to leave. A man andwoman sat near the flames, unblinking,even as ashes blew in their faces.“He does this every day,” the womansaid.The homeless are everywhere in SanJosé: in other western and southern neighborhoods,along bustling Avenida Segunda,and wandering through the city’s parks.WHILE the phenomenon is not a newone, its increasing prevalence has givenrise, this year, to an apparently unprecedenteddegree of cooperation between publicand private entities in an attempt toorganize, coordinate and expand servicesto those in need.A recent government registry of thehomeless, designed to give officials afirmer grasp of the problem, counted 234homeless people in three days of interviews(TT, Feb. 25). Organizers say theythink there are many more yet to be found,and are planning an additional round ofsurveys to be conducted at night.All of this begs the question: in a countrywhere a strong tradition of home ownershipis one of the defining characteristics ofthe culture, what has brought about this risein the population living on the street?ACCORDING to experts and thehomeless themselves, there are three causes:an increasing prevalence of drug andalcohol addiction, weakening family ties,and urban population shifts.Substance abuse is mentioned aboveany other reason.“Addiction is the principal problem,”said Margarita Vásquez, project director forthe government’s Mixed Institute for SocialAid (IMAS), one of the organizing entitiesof the registry. She added the interviewershave found people of all ages and socialclasses who have fallen victim to drugs.Gail Nystrom, a U.S. citizen who haslived in Costa Rica since 1978, foundedthe non-profit Humanitarian Foundationand spends time each week providing aidto the homeless people through variousprograms, agreed.“These adults are alcoholics, and theysmoke crack,” she said. “It would beunusual to see someone not doing drugswho is on the street.”ACCORDING to José Miguel Jiménezof the international non-profit organizationHogar Crea, which runs shelters and drug rehabcenters throughout Costa Rica andother Latin American countries, it was theintroduction of cocaine to the Costa Ricandrug scene in the 1990s that brought homelessnesshere to a whole new level.“Before 1990, the drug used was mostlymarijuana,” Jiménez said. Like almostall Hogar Crea staff, he is a former addicthimself and now, after successfully completingthe organization’s demanding two-yearrehab program, has worked his wayup to become the national manager.“When the (U.S.) dollar began to rise,it was easier (for Colombian drug traffickers)to pay their Tico intermediaries withcocaine. The invention of crack cocaineincreased the effect even more. Peoplewho had been using pot for 30 yearsdestroyed their lives in just six months oncrack,” he said.Luckily, Jiménez added, heroin, whiletrafficked through the country, “has notbegun to stop in Costa Rica yet,” nor iscrystal meth in evidence.Synthetic drugs such as ecstasy arewidespread, especially among the upperclass, he said, “but those people never getto Hogar Crea. They die first… or pay forprivate treatment.”NYSTROM echoed Jiménez’s observations.“There’s no crystal meth, opium, orheroin (on San José’s streets) yet,” she said.Crack cocaine has done plenty of damage,however. Jiménez said that becausecrack users tend to become violent andsteal, often from their families, to supporttheir habits, they are more likely to be castout of their homes, thereby ending up onthe streets, than users of other drugs.Such is the case with Leonel Rodríguez,16, from Nicaragua – who, when givenpaper and colored pencils after lunch at aSan José soup kitchen, drew a painstakingportrait of his country, bearing the title“Nicaragua, land of fire and volcanoes.”He told The Tico Times he caught a rideto San José from Managua on a cargo truckfull of roofing tiles when he was 14. Hismother, a teacher, always supported him, hesaid, but his father and brother kicked himout of the house because of his drug habit.HIS story illustrates another commondenominator among those on the street:many are a long way from home.While some, such as Leonardo, are fromSan José, most seem to come from small townCosta Rica or even further afield.“Many came from other countries,”Vásquez, of the social aid institute, said.“They arrived with every intention ofsending money home to their families,they even worked a few months, and nowthey are in the street.”Juan Carlos Alberto Gutiérrez, 36, lyingon the sidewalk a block from the Coca-Colastation, said he came to Costa Rica from hishome in Medellín, Colombia, to work in thehotel industry, after studies that had takenhim as far as Rockland Community Collegein New York State. After a few months onthe job, he became addicted to crack andbegan living on the streets.RAMÓN Andrés, 22, said he is fromthe northwestern province of Guanacaste,and made no bones about the reason hecame to San José.“I’m here because of my taste fordrugs, quite frankly,” he said. He smiledeasily, fiddled with the crack pipe in hishand and asked not to be photographed.Asked where he sleeps, he said, “Oh, inbeds, on the patio of the house.” Whichhouse? “This house! Yes, this, San José!”He threw his head back and laughed, takingin the narrow streets with a sweep of his arm.According to Nystrom, the failure ofsmall farms in the country’s rural areasalso has contributed to homelessness in thegreater metropolitan area.“There’s no support for farmers,” shesaid. When a farm fails, “they think they’llbe getting a lot of money for the farms, butthen they’re bought at low prices by foreigncompanies,” driving people to the cityin desperate conditions.AT the same time, rising crime and adecreased sense of community in San Joséseem to be driving residents toward thesuburbs in a classic urban-flight pattern,making room for an increased homelesspopulation downtown.Cristian, 29, who said he came to SanJosé from his Guanacaste hometown “on atrip,” but would not elaborate, claimed theneighborhood is not unsafe, “as long asyou know how defend yourself with whatyou have” – which, in his case, is a small,serrated kitchen knife, produced from apants pocket.Still, the perception of increased potentialfor crime is one of the factors that haveprompted Costa Ricans to abandon citycenters, especially San José, according tothe latest annual State of the Nation report.Next: Government agencies seek toimprove support structures for the capital’shomeless population.

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