Every day. Day in and day out. Wherever you walk. There are people. Blind people. Handicapped people. Amputees. Single mums. Everywhere. All are needy people. All stand to the side of the road. Next to the tall buildings. In the shadow of giants.
Very late one night as I was returning home, I saw one of these people sitting just outside the entry to my hotel. A young mother in a sloppy green t-shirt, many times unwashed, sat on a limited blanket shared between her and her four year old son. He was curled up tight on his tiny share of the blanket, sleeping as soundly as one can when in the midst of a very noise and brightly lit street.
She was leaning up against a cold tiled wall, the limp form of an exhausted two year old girl sleeping soundly in her arms. She was jingling a plastic cup containing a few measly coins, looking at nothing in particular as people walked on past, pretending not to notice.
I did notice though, so I stopped. I knelt down, and through my poor Spanish, I started talking with this lady. What pursued was an interesting insight into her life and the life of many people on the streets. It was a look into the systems of government and lack of government in Argentina, and a growing understanding of the needs that litter this country.
Rose (not her real name) had been on the streets for just on a year now. Summer, when the nights are warm and many tourists are in the city, things are quite good for them. Winter however is much harder. Lots of rain and freezing days with colder nights.
What does Rose do during winter? “The same thing” she says, “only we wear a lot more clothes.” “The hardest thing about winter” Rose continues, “is that this little one is asthmatic and it plays up during winter” and with that she looks to the little bundle of joy held in her arms. Medicine then becomes yet another burden of cost.
Rose had a husband at one point, but he had run away from the responsibility and left her with the children. She could not find any work though she had tried. She explained to me that there are very few jobs that a woman can do in Argentina while she has dependent children who need attention.
Of her family, Rose’s mother died four years ago, her father having also run away when Rose was just a young child. Apparently, Rose tells me, she has nine brothers and sisters, but since they are all half-brothers and half-sisters she has never once met them and has no idea who they are. All progenies of her wayward father.
So what of government support for people in these situations? Rose is quick to point out that although in Australia there are things like this, in Argentina the government does not offer any support at all. This means that for Rose, there is only one way to get money to live.
So here she is on the streets trying to get enough money to live. From late morning until somewhere around three thirty in the early hours of the morning, she jangles her cup of coins looking to the compassion of the people to help her survive. No bank account, not many clothes save those she can carry around with her, and very few friends upon which to lean upon.
About three months ago she found some form of accommodation in a deserted old bank building a few blocks from the city. This she shares with many other homeless people. Living on the streets in the city centre is not very dangerous at all, I am told, although some regional places are to be avoided. The policemen ignore her, which is good while she is begging, but becomes a dilemma should she need help.
Living a life on the streets, where people try to avoid you or ignore you, would make many people hard. Rose tells of many with whom she stays, how they abuse alcohol and drugs because of the sorrow of their hearts. Yet as I talked with Rose, I could see she was not bitter inside.
Rose’s gentle and open face revealed a person not willing to let circumstances affect her. She had willingly told me about her life and those things happening around her. Sometimes she even smiled about some of them.
She continues to talk with me, telling me about her young son, still asleep on his corner of the blanket. “He will be going to school soon,” she says with some obvious relief in her voice. Soon was meaning in the next year or so, but we had been talking about how he was coping with life on the street. I gathered that by the way she said this that it will be good from him. Cost was not an issue either because the schooling is free in Argentina. Perhaps it will also give her an opportunity to work.
So how much does it take to keep a family of three alive each day? “Oh,” said Rose, “$15 pesos each day just for accommodation. And food… well. You know food, it is such a changing thing. It really depends on what you want or need at the time. You cannot eat cheap foods all the time. It is just not good for you.”
I estimated that on a light day Rose would need close to thirty pesos in total, and ask, “Do you make that much each day?” She thinks about it a little, “Some days I make more, but most of the time… no.” And then she hastens to add, “But it works out.”
I glanced at my watch. We had been talking for almost an hour. With the night fading quickly, I thanked Rose and got up to leave. I was very aware that Rose had not begrudged me any of the time of our conversation, even though this was time needed to recive further money.
Throughout our conversation, from the time I stopped to talk, I had been feeling that I needed to give Rose $20 pesos. Now this was a large amount, even for me, and so I held back during the entire conversation. Every time I considered giving her something I was always confronted with seeing the same amount.
In my heart I only wanted to give five, or at most ten pesos, but the larger amount would not leave my eyes. So, not knowing why so much was needed, I pulled out twenty pesos and gave this to Rose. She was very grateful.
Then, not knowing how to part, I said “thank you,” and left.
At 3am in the morning it started raining. A massive thunderstorm came directly over the city, pouring down torrents of rain. The streets quickly filled up with deep puddles of water, and every drain was working overtime to direct the waters out to the sea.
I woke up. Lying there watching the room light up with every flash of lightning, I thought about Rose and her children. I thought about the money I had given her. Was this money just what she needed at this point in time? Was it God that had prompted me to give it? It certainly seemed like it. Was Rose and her children now somewhere safe?
These questions and more remain unanswered, but would I see Rose again, I should like to ask her. Until then I am happy to assume. I assume that God had prompted me to give this amount. I assume that this amount was what she needed for that night. I assume that one day I may find out.
Rose. Only one of many who live… in the shadow of giants.