San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Efforts Seek ‘Real Solution’ for Homeless (Part two in a two-part series about

“I wanted to be President of CostaRica,” said Fabrizio Rojas, 60, sitting on abench in San José’s Central Park. “But –oh, well.”As he spoke, his eyes, along with theeyes of the other homeless people whooften spend their days in the broad plaza infront of the Metropolitan Cathedral, dwelton a curious sight.Government employees, SalvationArmy volunteers bearing sandwiches, andyellow-shirt-clad members of the internationaldrug-rehabilitation organizationHogar Crea scurried back and forth with anevident sense of purpose.Their mission: to interview as many ofthe city’s homeless people as possible inthree days and create an unprecedentedregistry of the homeless population.THE February survey is one of twoongoing efforts by the Municipality of SanJosé and other government agencies to joinnon-governmental organizations (NGOs)in the fight against homelessness and druguse (TT, March 11).The government also has been collaboratingin Hogar Crea’s “Crusades of Faithand Hope,” held every two or three monthsto convince people on the streets to enterdrug rehab.The goal of these efforts is to give thegovernment a more accurate grasp of theneeds of the homeless, to eventuallyincrease funding to social aid programs ina strategic manner, creating “a real solution,”said Margarita Vásquez, projectcoordinator for the Mixed Institute forSocial Aid (IMAS).SHE told The Tico Times the institutehas kept records of the homeless populationbefore, but only people who soughthelp at shelters or soup kitchens. This registrysent data-collectors to the streets toinclude those who do not receive anysocial services.Volunteers from the Salvation Armyand Hogar Crea have played a crucial rolein the projects, helping defuse the tensionor fear the homeless might otherwise feelwhen confronted with clipboard-totinggovernment workers, Vásquez said.The initial phase of the survey, completedFeb. 15-17, yielded informationabout 187 homeless people (162 men and25 women). Most are between the ages of40 and 64 (50.80%), did not complete highschool, are single (67.38%) and CostaRican (80.75%). Nicaraguans made up17.65% of the sample.Organizers are considering an additional,nocturnal survey to reach more people,according to municipal spokeswomanCarmen Azofeifa.THE Costa Rican government doesnot operate its own shelters, but providesfunding to the various private organizationsthat offer aid to homeless peoplethroughout the city.Two of those visited by The Tico Times– the soup kitchen Obras de Misericordia(Works of Mercy), near La MercedChurch, and the Hogar Crea headquartersin the western San José suburb of Pavas –demonstrate very different approaches.Obras de Misericordia serves men, anda handful of women, who are still living onthe streets and using drugs, whereas HogarCrea, a live-in shelter and drug rehab center,requires members to commit to comingclean before they can be admitted.At Obras, 150-200 people gather everyTuesday and Thursday for a meal and ahost of other services. One recentThursday, the room – a large but simplehall, equipped with a kitchen and bathrooms– filled with bodies and voices. Themen ate, talked, shouted, jostled, tookshowers in the back, and drew pictureswith the art supplies volunteers gave them.JANNETTE Incera, the president ofthe Social Well-Being Foundation thatoperates the kitchen, said the IMAS covers48% of the soup kitchen’s costs. Donationscover the remaining expenses, and theHumanitarian Foundation, founded byU.S. citizen Gail Nystrom, supplies volunteers.When one of the men interruptedIncera mid-sentence with a request, shetook a breath and asked him to wait.“It’s a process of education,” she said.“Teaching them not to interrupt, to takecare of the garbage.”Eduardo, 32, said he appreciates theextra attention.“It’s nice here, not like some otherplaces,” he said. “They treat you withaffection. There are other places (for services),but they shout at you. They treatyou like trash.”The men view their future with a certainvagueness.Leonel, 16, from Nicaragua, said hedreams of being “a lawyer. Or a truck driver.”Danilo Oquendo, 40, his fingers blackenedby the wire he takes from recyclingbins and uses to make animal figurines, seesan end to his addiction, but not quite yet.“Yes, I use drugs, but” – he paused togesture as if swatting an imaginary fly –“soon, soon, I’ll stop.”THOSE who recover from addiction atHogar Crea’s 23 shelters around the countryhave reached that elusive “soon,” butresidents are quick to correct anyone whothinks the process ends with admittance.Juan Carlos Granados, 29, in his fifthmonth of rehab at the organization’s Pavasbranch, spoke with obvious pride about hisachievements, but also maintained “it’svery hard.”“We are antagonistic people,” he said ofhimself and his fellow residents. “We goagainst the norms. We were robbing, wewere swindling.”Despite each resident’s commitment tochange, those personality traits can make ithard to achieve the peaceful coexistencesuch close quarters demand, Granadosadded.To combat these challenges, the organization’sleaders have adapted a system ofstrict discipline. The quiet and calm at theshelter, housed at what was once a hilltopfarm, is as noticeable as the chaotic activityat Obras de Misericordia.Granados is now the cooking captainat the shelter. The 2.5-year rehab programputs men into positions of responsibilityimmediately by putting them onto one ofseveral “brigades” responsible for everythingfrom laundry to the care of the shelter’scow, rabbits and other animals.Granados used alcohol, marijuana andcrack for 13 years, he said, “but therearrives a moment when you lift your headand there’s no horizon. There’s no goal.It’s a void. You have this need to get yourlife back.”Hogar Crea required that he visit theshelter on five consecutive days beforeadmitting him. In the case of people whohave dropped out of the program before,these required visits can extend to 30 daysin order to verify the person’s commitmentto change.THE only exception to this rule iswhen people commit to the program duringHogar Crea’s “crusades.”According to José Miguel Jiménez,Hogar Crea’s national manager, theJanuary crusade – the first one in whichgovernment organizations offered support– brought in 67, far above the 10- to 15-person average for a typical crusade.The success of the first joint effortprompted an even larger event on March15. Fifty volunteers and 20 governmentworkers brought in 87 recruits, accordingto Ligia Quesada, director of human developmentfor the municipality. A third jointeffort is tentatively planned for May.The funds to support these new residentsonce the crusade is completed comefrom the non-governmental organizationsalone. Hogar Crea, funded by private donations,support from the international organizationand the sales of cookies and otherproducts on street corners, spends ¢80,000($172) per month on each shelter resident.IN February, Jiménez said that the firstround of recruits were “stable” and “a littleincredulous to be off the streets, to havetheir own beds.”Today, however, only 30% of thoserecruits are still in shelters; the remaining70% has returned to the streets, Quesadaadmitted. Still, she said a high attrition rateis “normal for this population,” and has notput a damper on the municipality’s efforts.Three of the January recruits enteredshelters once again during the second crusade,Quesada added.“Many people enter shelters one, two,five times… Maybe on the second try itsticks,” she said.

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