I just came back from San Francisco. The Fon office in San Francisco is near Union Square one of the most commercial parts of San Fran but also an area that is populated by a lot of homeless people. Tonight, at dinner table in Madrid I was telling my 3 older children about this tragedy and how difficult it was for me to understand why USA, the richest country in the world, had such an enormous amount of homeless people. My kids themselves remembered being shocked about this phenomenon in their latest visit to NYC.  During dinner we all tried to figure out why large US cities had such vast homeless populations. We could only come up with two answers, one is that while Spain has an average income that is half of that of USA this income is much more evenly distributed and few people fall through the cracks. But the second one that we felt it was more important was family ties. It is very unlikely that a Spaniard would let a relative be homeless.  Even Spain´s junkies, and there are many of those, mostly live with their families.

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Antoin O Lachtnain on October 24, 2007  · 

We have a phenomenon in Ireland, which I suppose you could call homeless centralization. What happens is that the homeless and drug addicts tend to migrate towards areas where support services are available. In many cases, this is in city centres. There are significant areas where there are officially no homeless people. These people all move to the city centre when they become homeless. This results in a dramatic concentration in the central area (which you saw yourself when you visited).

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bklyn on October 25, 2007  · 

Help us help the street homeless

Call 311: to report homeless individuals and families who you see on the Streets of New York City (all Boroughs)

Outreach Teams will be sent to offer assistance.

Thank you

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andi on October 25, 2007  · 

It would be interesting to see statistics comparing Spain to Scandinavia, where a lot people would expect the state and not the family to take care of junkies or others going through difficilt times. My impression is that the situation is much better in Scandinavia, although it may be that Scandinavians are better at hiding the junkies. I thought there were a lot of beggars when i was in Madrid a couple of years ago, it felt very uncomfortable. I’m not sure they were Spanish though, they looked more like East Europeans.

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Miguel on October 25, 2007  · 


I agree with both your answers, and being myself a child of divorced parents, and on my second marriage, I still hold the family ties as the highest valued part of my life. I believe Family values to be a great asset of the Spanish society which should be encouraged.

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Elliott on October 25, 2007  · 

San Francisco, especially the area near the Clift Hotel [I stay at the Prescott about a block away on Post St], has all the attributes of a magnet for begging [not necessarily homeless] on the street. Just to the west is a poor, run down area on the border of a very tourist active, hotel & retail densely populated area with foot traffic. San Francisco citizens and government are accepting of street people, the climate is reasonably mild all year, etc. Just because they are beggars does not mean they are ignorant: they stake out their preferred location based upon the economic return they achieve, just as retailers do. Downtown Miami has beggars; suburban Boca Raton where everyone is in a car & nobody walks only has a beggar at the Florida Turnpike exit that has a traffic light that results in stopped cars with visual contact between the drivers and the solo beggar.

I agree with you that a good measure of a country is how it treats it poorest citizens, but I don’t know how to judge that across countries. I don’t think it is fair to judge it by the presence of street beggars who represent a miniscule amount [0.1% or less?] of the poor. Some cities have a hostile attitude to beggars on the street & you see fewer beggars.

Taxation in Spain at 36.7% of GDP in 2006 [NY Times, “Taxes in Developed Countries Reach 36%”, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CEFDE1131F93BA25753C1A9619C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=1%5D compared to 28.2% of GDP in the USA is 30% higher, as is the international average [30.2% of GDP] of 30 industrial countries.

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David W on October 26, 2007  · 

My suspicion is that this is not a simple answer. These are complicated issues. I doubt it has much to do with either income inequality or a lack of family values.

Potential factors:

1) Handling of deinstitutionalization. I wonder whether this partially has to do with differences in how countries deinstitutionalized their mental health systems during the latter hald of the 20th century. The US homeless problem is partially related to changes in how the government handles the mentally ill stemming from a number of policy shifts away in the 1970s and 1980s, changes partially to blame on both the right and left. This resulted in putting the mentally ill out on the street and a shift in the law making in hard to commit them involuntarily. Similar things happened in Europe but there were also stronger community health programs and other things to pick up the slack.

2) Also, the crack problem is probably be more acute in the US than in Europe. And crack is some pretty nasty stuff and makes people do financially crazy things and end up in a bad way.

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Keefieboy on October 26, 2007  · 

Well we live on Plaza de Chueca in Madrid and there are about six homeless people who seem to live in the square: at least two of them sleep on benches ovenight. I don’t know where the others go.

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andres on October 27, 2007  · 

I live in Chamberi, a rathr well-off neighborhood in the centre of Madrid and there are plenty of homeless around. In the summer time they sleep outdoors, mostly on benches or in local playgrounds, and in the winter they flee indoors using the ATM lobbies in banks as shelter.

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XL on October 27, 2007  · 


In USA if you want you can find a job, the unemplyment rate is quite low. But you find Homeless. Honestly more than a economic problem is a psycologic problem, the major part of them, like in Spain are people who refused the conventional way of life, basically because they had problems with alcohol drugs or whatever.
Spain use to be a country where it comes european homeless, specially from Germany, France, Portugal… The reasons are the sweet winter, and the full help that provides some spanish institutions like Catholic Church (Caritas) that are not strong enough in other countries, and also tjat is easier to acces to the health system.
But us you said in Spain is more difficult to find this people, and is because we have developed enough infrastructures to help them.
Also in Italy where I was working as volunteer in Public dinner room managed by catholic church.
In downtown SF or in NYC create this installations are much expensive than in Barcelona, and that also other reason

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Mike on October 28, 2007  · 

You should visit certain parts of Madrid and Barcelona, they are worse than San Francisco. The difference is that here the police send them away from tourist and posh areas, to marginal districts, whereas in the US they are allowed to be wherever they want to.

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jrufigo on October 28, 2007  · 


the US is a much larger country than Spain in terms of population (9x), it is normal for the former to have way more homeless. Moreover, as you said the US has a less even income distribution than most EU countries (and getting worse according to William Fogel, a guru in income equality from the University of Chicago).

Now there is a second unknown phenomenon in Spain; homeless migration. As winter approaches, hundreds of thousands of homeless people leave the north east and central states to California (mainly San Diego, SF and LAX).

What you saw is the consequence of those two facts.


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XL on October 28, 2007  · 

MIKE that’s not true, the major concentration of homeless in Madrid and Barcelona is in the downtown.

Outside the city (specially in Madrid) you could find some gipsy villages, but nobody put it there, it was themselve who search a place where the had enough space to create his “poblado”

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XL on October 28, 2007  · 


Yes we know the phenomenon of homeles migration as we use to have many homeless from Germany or other northern countries.

I still considering that the homeless problem more than a question of poverty is a psycological problem…

Also in Spain as Martin said the family srtucture still being quite strong, and like more than 80% of the homes are in property, is not starnge that in Spain people who has a marginal way of life has a house where rest or sleep, you can speack with spanish police who is tired of the claims of the neigbours. Usually this houses comes from an heritage, of his parents.

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Sarah on October 30, 2007  · 

I agree with many of the above comments that speakto the complexity of the situation. Though it may sound like a game of semantics, I think it is also important to distinguish between homeless people and street people. As you yourself mentioned, here in Spain people would take in relatives who are in need. Thus Spain could actually have a high homeless population, you just don’t see it because they are sleeping on their cousin’s couch instead of on the streets.

In SF many of the people you encountered have serious drug and mental illness problems. In this instance, what you witnessed speaks more to the US’ inadequate mental health services than to the income gap.

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Len on October 30, 2007  · 

I moved to Spain from California 11 years ago and I quickly came to the same conclusion as Martin. The social fabric in Spain (and most of Europe) is made of family ties, and these are much tighter/denser than in the US. The US mindset is still one of pioneers; the thinking is that nobody will take care of you and you must fend for yourself. This has pros and cons; it makes for very resourceful and entrepreneurial behavior but it also creates a tendency to shun those in need of help.

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Reality Check on November 8, 2007  · 

No homeless people in Madrid? Then who are all those people sleeping on the ground and urinating in the underground pedestrian walkway at the Banco de España metro stop?

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