In the weeks leading up to the festivities, there’s an air of delightful expectation. But there´s another side to the coin: people who are struggling to survive become particularly aware of their desperate circumstances during the glittering holiday season.
At the beginning of November, Spanish online news page “www.20minutos.es” reported that 57,000 people were unemployed on the Balearic Islands – an increase of 53 per cent on November 2007. By the end of the year the number is expected to rise to 82,000 – an unemployment rate of 14 per cent this winter, the highest level for 12 years. Already, many people in Mallorca have run out of unemployment pay (“Paro”).
Large numbers of people here are homeless or live in shabby apartments below the poverty level, often through no fault of their own. Pensioners of all nationalities are extremely affected – in the municipality of Calvià, 20 per cent of all retired people are categorised as “poor” – and then there are the long-term unemployed, washed-up expats from South America and naïve luck-chasers from other EU countries. In the streets of some districts of Palma, people can be seen searching for food or other necessities in the rubbish bins. It’s a growing phenomenon in Spanish cities and was highlighted in the news in October on Spanish TV channel TVE.
One reason is that, in contrast to the UK and Germany, Spain has no official welfare policy. Anyone who falls through the cracks in the land of the bullfight, cannot demand a standard governmental benefit – even though, according to EU guidelines, people of all nationalities registered as living in European Union member countries are entitled to receive a minimum aid and living space. The guidelines have not yet been processed into national legislation. There’s no equivalent in Spain to British housing benefit.
However, it´s not totally hopeless and nobody need die in the street, because in Spain – and in Mallorca – there are many institutions helping people in financial distress. The assistance is seldom monetary, but often practical and material. For those affected, the problem is knowing where to go to find help.
Officially, the social service department of Palma town hall is the first contact; the city has nine “Serveis Socials” offices (e.g. in Calle Temple 10 – Phone: +34 971 225 977). But the big national churches, Christian organisations, The Salvation Army, and the German “Social Cultural Club”, run by charming senior José Rodríguez, also help in emergency situations.
To clear any doubts, here’s an official quote from www.spanienclub.de describing a case of private insolvency abroad: “British or German citizens don´t have a legal claim to welfare benefit in Spain. Somebody living for decades in a country of the European Union other than his own, getting into trouble there, hardly finds a solution. If he doesn´t want to suffer extreme poverty or even die of hunger he must leave the country.” Only people who have previously been in regular work here and have received unemployment pay – with a maximum of six months’ entitlement – can claim a minimal welfare benefit. Even Spaniards only obtain monetary help if their income is lower than 2,250 (!) euros in one year. That´s the compelling logic in a country where pensioners obtain average pensions below 600 euros a month.
In the UK and Ireland an average pension is over 1,000 euros per month.
Those who turn to Eric Bradley (37) of The Salvation Army in Cala Mayor can at least hope for free clothing and warm meals (Phone: +34 971 701 110). The preacher and Salvation Army captain can´t promise money and accommodation, however: “In such cases we contact Palma town hall and try to get a place in one of the refuges.” Bradley is a friendly person reading the Bible in his office, who’s served in Mallorca since January 2008, together with his wife and five children. On request, Bradley hands out coupons for free clothes, second-hand furniture and other household items – things donated to the Salvation Army shops. Bradley: “We invite more kind donations of clothes and ingredients for meals, like meat and vegetables, to our church in Son Caliu, Calvià.”
“What´s missing most in the world are people caring for the emergencies of others” – quote Albert Schweitzer. “Mr. Rodríguez, you are such a person” is written on a certificate from the German consulate, displayed in the German Social Cultural Club (DSKV) premises in Santa Ponsa, and signed by the former German consul Karin Köller and all her team. José Rodríguez is now 72 years old and has lead DSKV for 17 years. His mobile phone number is probably the most popular “last number to call” on the island (Phone: +34 610 212 949) . He´d never refuse anybody in an emergency and always “organizes something” to help, the lively senior emphasizes. Bilingual, he knows both Spanish and German culture, having lived for 30 years in Hamburg. In 1991 he returned to Mallorca and founded the association, which mainly helps the elderly and sick. Rodríguez spends a lot of time in hospitals. The DSKV has 1,400 members, whose subscriptions are used to fund welfare projects. But Rodríguez can´t pay out money: “Everybody can get vouchers for food and clothing, but not cash. Unfortunately, many might spend it on alcohol or drugs.”
Rodríguez is part of a social network of organizations, showing stranded people a path through the bureaucratic jungle. The best solution for washed-up expats and poor or sick pensioners is to return to their homeland. Rodríguez: “I have a special agreement for cheap flights with one airline. If necessary I personally go with the people concerned. The social workers in the country of origin are informed.” Those who don’t want to leave the island – and there are many cases, as Rodríguez knows – must walk the difficult road to Spanish social services and, if homeless, apply for social housing. “These applications must be made in a written form and are often rejected. If this happens, the authorities´ letter of rejection enables me to take legal action against the Spanish government at the European Social Court, citing discrimination against the applicants.”
He´s quite upset about the fact that Spain has not established a regulation for social welfare yet, in spite of having been admonished by the EU and having obtained “millions of euros to set up programmes”. A social court and an official social statute book don´t exist and thus legal action is blocked. The local “Serveis Socials” service points of Palma town hall only concede a temporary emergency fund – for former recipients of “Paro” – amounting to some 400 euros a month. It’s the same amount for one person or a family with three children. Rodríguez: “Calculating the current costs for living, this money can be used to pay the rent or buy food – but not both.”
So every organization helps a little bit to fight pain and emergency – and Rodríguez is one mediator. He and his members are available 24 hours a day on the mobile phone. In addition, all churches, the Caritas (Phone: +34 971 716 288) and the Salvation Army are basically helping points. So Christmas remains a festival of hope – even for the poor and homeless.