Monday, April 4, 2011

To Help the Homeless

Plaza Los Mártire in Bogotá.
Bogotá’s Plaza Los Mártires has seen better days—what was once a center for commerce has since deteriorated into an emblem of the capital city’s pervasive poverty. Today, the homeless wander the plaza in search of handouts from passersby, willing or otherwise. Colombian soldiers stand guard around the clock in the center of the plaza, protecting a large obelisk resembling a miniature Washington Monument. If you planned on venturing there during the day, people would say you need a flak jacket—if you decided to go there after dark, they’d suggest you try on a straight-jacket.

Well, it was well after dark and that was precisely where I was headed.

Sorry, mom.

My triceps and forearms burned under the strain of pushing a large cart loaded with enough soup to feed five hundred people. I was accompanied by a diverse group of men, women and children as we walked through the centro’s dimly-lit streets. Although to walk there alone at this hour would have been tantamount to suicide, our small army of good Samaritans—led by the tallest priest I had ever seen—walked unopposed through the darkness. Every now and then we would halt our advance and a few people carrying guitars would begin to play, spurring the whole group to break into song.

The homeless in Plaza Los Mártire.
When we finally arrived at Plaza Los Mártires, there was a huge line of homeless people forming in anticipation of the nourishment we wrought. Happy to be relieved of my burden, I helped to carefully set the cart on the pavement. A few people who had been lugging bags filled with sandwiches plopped them on the ground next the soup. The group fanned out and linked arms to create a protective circle around the food, as a few people began ladling soup into small Styrofoam cups.

A few heavily-armed soldiers meandered over to make sure nobody bothered us, but it didn’t appear to be necessary—volunteers freely mingled with the homeless, chatting up a storm as they waited (more or less) patiently in line for what was likely their first real meal in days. My friend Zach and I watched over a group of children volunteers as they conversed with an old man sporting a rough, gray beard who smiled warmly with all the five teeth he had.

When the children volunteers spotted a pair of homeless children waiting for their mother to get them soup, they swarmed the unsuspecting pair like paparazzi. Although the two initially looked immensely uncomfortable with the attention they weren’t accustomed to receiving, they eventually opened up and began chattering with their admirers in rapid-fire Spanish I could barely follow. One of the homeless boys disappeared for a few minutes and returned wearing roller blades, proudly displaying his roller talents to the group.

Homeless man sitting in Bogotá.
I looked around to soak up the scene—volunteers not only hard at work passing out food to the hungry, but also socializing with them as if they were old friends. I watched the homeless boy attempting to impress the young girls with his mad roller blade skills, only to hit a crack in the cement and come crashing down in a blaze of glory.

My time in Colombia has compelled me to reflect a lot about the gross inequality afflicting this world. While I concede that, given our choice of economic system, there will always be a degree of inequality; however, we cannot progress as a species until we can guarantee that at the very least, those dwelling at the bottom of the economic barrel can live humanely and, more importantly, have equality of opportunity to better themselves as human beings.

Homelessness is an epidemic that many of us who are better off chose to ignore. We justify our ignorance by dehumanizing the homeless, rationalizing that they are solely to blame for getting themselves into their plight. Serves those lazy drug addicts right, we argue. But after speaking with the homeless first-hand—albeit in my spotty gringo Spanish—it was impossible not to see their humanity. These were not people to be reviled nor pitied—although through a series of unfortunate events, they had found themselves at the absolute bottom of society’s barrel, they were nonetheless, still human. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “Why should there be hunger and deprivation in any land, in any city, at any table, when man has the resources and the scientific know-how to provide all mankind with the basic necessities of life? There is no deficit in human resources. The deficit is in human will.”

Helping the homeless at night in Plaza Los Mártires.
We owe it to ourselves as well as to those who come after to not only imagine a better world, but to also do whatever is within our power to make it so.

We cannot continue to make excuses not to act.

Time to get to work.


  1. Thank you Mike for reporting from my lovely Country. Your well written and vivid articles have brought beautiful memories to my life. I did graduate from College in Bogota (Political Science & Public Administration) but I ended working as a Social Worker in the US. I'm glad you're taking time to help the Colombian more vulnerable and unprotected population. God bless you!

  2. Fantastic post, amazing experience. I agree with your sentiments - people often don't realize the circumstances that lead to homelessness. I salute your efforts to bring humanity to a tired situation. Good effort!

  3. Thank you for your comments, Liz and Laurie! It's difficult to just idly stand by when you see such a huge discrepancy between the rich and the poor in Bogota. But homelessness is a problem every major city in every country in the world must face. The question is; how can we eliminate it or at least reduce it?

  4. I left my Country 30 years ago, and the discrimination I witnessed in the 70's between the rich and the poor had drastically increased. Now is worst than ever and our Governments do not care about it. They keep getting richer and helping the elite to be in control and enjoy their wealth either in Colombia or in another Countries because they are the only ones than can afford it.
    There are no social programs such health care, unemployment, food stamps, WIC program, housing, etc available to the majority of the population, so what can the homeless or indigents expect from such corrupted government?
    But visit estratos 5 and 6 barrios of Bogota and cities like La Calera, Chia, etc and you can see the luxury and the life styles of the minority of Colombia: the rich and millionaries. Shame and disavowal.