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

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.


No options
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.

Some 6,600 companies in Portugal went bankrupt last year, more than a 40 per cent increase on 2011, according to a country report published by Oxfam last month.

The charity highlights the hardship and inequalities wrought by the government’s radical austerity programme.

The average family allowance, the abono de familia, a subsidy paid monthly per child and dependent on various factors, reached a peak of just €44.60 per month in 2010 – and has steadily declined since, it says.

Since 2010, the number receiving “social insertion benefit”, a payment to those most in need, has almost halved to 274,933. In April, the average monthly amount received under this benefit was just €81.90, it says.

“It is a strange problem,” says Correia. “Just at the very moment when people need more help, the government is cutting welfare. At this moment we are paying more taxes, but the help to the community is far less than before.”

Cutbacks are being pushed through at both national and European level. The Portuguese Food Bank, which helps feed some 390,000 people (up from 209,000 in 2006) out of the country’s 10.5 million population, faces the prospect of losing up to 40 per cent of the €20 million in aid it gets from Brussels every year.

Just when countries such as Portugal need such assistance more than ever, the Fund for European Aid, which is to replace the EU's food aid programme, will have fewer resources for food, says Isabel Jonet, president of the European Federation of Food Banks.

Back at the Lar Sant’Ana, the effects of the recession are being felt beyond the families queuing for dinner. Some 40 volunteers work there, among them 45-year-old Fernando Teixeira, who recently lost his job after 33 years as a manager in the construction sector.

Empty apartments
Like many areas in Portugal, Matosinhos has been left with swathes of empty apartments. Before he was laid off, the company had just built 70 apartments, says Teixeira "all of them priced from €1 million and up. Thirty of them were sold, and the rest are empty."

In accordance with Portugal’s bailout agreement with the troika, Teixeira is entitled to 18 months’ unemployment benefit, less than half the previously established limit.

“And then – nothing,” he says with a resigned smile. “Nothing.”

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