Austerity brings Portugal’s new poor to the table as soup kitchens overwhelmed
Drastic cuts in social welfare take a toll on an economically blighted nation
Mario Silva and Elisa Teixeira at the Lar Sant’Ana soup kitchen in Matosinhos
Mário Silva and his partner, Elisa Teixeira, sit eating vegetable soup and bread in a cheerily decorated charity restaurant in the seaside city of Matosinhos, just outside Porto.
Silva (50) eats here twice a day, Teixeira (60) once. The food is good, he says, smiling broadly as he explains that he is glad of the company and the support he gets here. The soup kitchen is located in and run by the Lar de Sant’Ana home for the elderly, which provides a range of services for the hungry and the homeless.
But as Silva tells his story, the tears suddenly flow. He used to find regular work as a labourer on building sites but that stopped when the construction sector collapsed. When his rent was raised from €250 per month to €490 a year ago, he became homeless. “I just couldn’t afford it,” he says, wiping his eyes.
He takes shelter where he can, and uses the showers and free laundry service here at the Sant’Ana home. Teixeira, also jobless, has access to a small room but cannot accommodate her partner of 12 years.
Silva is one of Portugal’s growing population of new poor, who once held down jobs, paid their bills and lived relatively comfortably but who now find themselves hungry, without a roof and with no options.
“This is a new phenomenon,” says Antonio Pedro Correia, who has been director of the home since 2004. “A few years ago we had only 30 people coming here – mostly homeless people with problems or issues with drugs.” These days some 120 people show up at the soup kitchen: 80 for lunch and 40 for dinner.
“Now we have a different kind of people coming here: people who have just become homeless, and also entire families with children. The parents have lost their jobs. They can still pay their mortgage and bills for the moment, but they can’t afford food.”
Many people in such situations find it embarrassing to ask for help, says Correia. “People coming here for the first time, they have shame. That’s the most tragic thing in this situation, when you look at a person and you know she is ashamed to be here, she doesn’t want to look at you. It is very difficult.”
Portugal’s 17 per cent unemployment rate – 37 per cent among under-25s – coupled with drastic cutbacks as the country struggles to meet the conditions of a €78 billion bailout, are clearly contributing to the country’s rapidly rising rate of poverty and homelessness, says Correia.