By Mónica Hernández / Translated by A.L.C.Teen Translators, Asturias-Spain
- Gloria, early-retired from Iberia Airlines, keeps nine homeless men in her home with her pension and has created a business where they work.
- She has already taken in 160 people in thirteen years.
“Gloria, the journalist is already here!” shouts Fede, looking up as he raises his voice. He leads me to the top floor of the thrift shop where Gloria appears to be waiting for me. I see her coming round sofas, lamps, picture frames, shelves and second-hand books.
We exchange glances and she smiles at me. “Hi, Monica” Gloria is a dark-haired cheerful woman around 60 years old with tiny bright eyes. From her early retirement pension from Iberia Airlines where she was an air-hostess, now live ten people – nine men without any family ties and herself. They are her only family and she loves them as if they were true family.
She has created two second-hand thrift shops with her pension and the earnings from people’s donations of their old furniture. “Her boys” as she likes to call them, go house to house with the van gathering items that later will be restored and sold. They also do odd-jobs at a good price, like painting if necessary, moving or whatever brings money home to where they all live – the home that Gloria rents for everyone. The place where they live, eat, sleep and are treated for both their physical and emotional illnesses – the latter ones being the ones that hurt the most. They dream about the crisis ending and that someday the world will be better. At the moment, since Gloria took them into her home, it already is.
Everything began 13 years ago when Gloria, who had been a volunteer helping children of prostitutes who had cancer or Down’s Syndrome, decided to set up her own NGO – Proyecto Gloria – taking in to her home drug-dependent homeless men from the street.
She started giving them shelter in her rented flat where she pays 1500€ per month and where each person has their own bed in a shared room. She also helped them when they were sick with volunteer doctors and nurses. Living together wasn’t easy. “We all came in wild from the street” remembers Fede “without rules, upset by life´s hardships, people´s rejection… for me it was very difficult to adapt. When I arrived I weighed 118 pounds. The moment she saw me she put me in the shower and when I came out, she had thrown away all my clothes. I still recall the hardest part was letting her kiss me and hug me. She is a very loving person and at first I rejected her love. I wasn’t used to it…”
“When you come through that door and someone bathes and cares for you, it freaks you out. But as time passes you understand the reason why and that love transforms you. Those of us who make it help those who are where we once were. It has created a group spirit and we don’t let each other fall,” reflects Fede.
I am surprised to see mature and experienced men who have reached their fifties talk openly and straight-forwardly about love. They discuss it and value it because those who have been down and out know what is needed.
Gloria shows me the storage area where they have all the furniture. “I wish we had many like these. I could give work to dozens of people that ask me for it every day. This is where the money comes from, the money which I feed my boys with, all of it comes from the thrift shop. At first it was traumatic. I published a book, Mi vida con ellos (My Life With Them) where I tell how in the first years they even tried to kill me… Of course, you put up strangers in your house and don’t know what they are going to do, but now a very good group of people has emerged. I have some who are sick and others who are unemployed.”
“ What I offer them is a place to sleep and above all affection. I’ve had to send some of them to school. I often sign them up for every course available on Internet: language courses, etc… I take responsibility for their positive progress. For the last 13 years I have had 160 people living with me and all of them men. It is very uncommon for me to have available space.”
With the crisis, things are changing and Gloria has started to host unemployed and divorced men who are forced to beg and live in bad conditions because of the times. “Money causes problems in couples. When a family is unemployed and money isn’t coming in, problems living together arise and we are seeing more people getting divorced. There are men who leave home and end up in the street despite having been honest family men and tireless workers. Now I have two men at home who have ended up homeless because of the crisis -an economist and a building engineer´s assistant. Today they are helping a woman with four children move because tomorrow she and her family will be evicted. So they have gone there to help her with the furniture. We do it for free, we have to help each other…”.
Joaquin is another of these cases. I surprise him while he is restoring furniture on the upper floor of the shop. He shows me proudly what he is doing. “Look how good it´s coming out. Later, after being refinished, it sells well and at a low price.” He is 63 and an industrial engineering technician. “30 years working, he told me, and I end up unemployed. I had lots of arguments with my wife. In the end we divorced, but now we don’t have a bad relationship. I have two children over 30.” On account of unemployment and the divorce he ended up on the street. “My wife stayed at home and I left. I thought it would be easier, but later I had to beg for money. I went from working in construction to begging. At my age, they won´t call me for any job. Regardless of having travelled the world as a welder, working in nuclear power plants, from South Africa to Saudi Arabia. I started to work at 14 and never stopped. One day in the food bank I saw the guys in the van picking up furniture, I gave them my phone number and they called me. I went to meet Gloria, we chatted, and now I have been in the house for a year. “
“ I have paid Gloria with my efforts repairing furniture, I also go to pick up furniture at houses. Together we have to pay the rent, electricity and water for the flat. Between my housemates and me we make up The A Team and I feel useful. Thinking about the street and its loneliness makes me panic. I had never imagined I would find myself in this situation while having my house paid for and my children at university,” he told us.
“For me Gloria is a thread of hope, it´s her who gives me love because in the street you are very lonely and it is very hard. She is all heart and if she could put up a hundred people in her home or have several homes, she would do it. Society has become dehumanized. Eighty percent of the comments I´ve received in the street are “you are worth what you have” and if you´re dirty they look at you as if you were a drunk or a drug-addict. People have even told me “to get a job”.” Regarding his experience in the house he told us “Living together is difficult. We all know who we are and where we are, so we must be tolerant. Violence doesn´t get you anywhere. Of course there are arguments but we need each other. Besides, we´ve all got something in common, that before arriving to Gloria´s house we all wanted to die…but now we all want to live.”
Dinner time has arrived and we head towards the house, but not without taking a last look at the thrift shop and saying goodbye to the customers looking for furnishings at a good price. Here they also sell books and two look very appealing- Angel María and Elena Quiroga. Se vende un hombre and El Viento del Norte. How much are they? Fede, Joaquin and Gloria who are accompanying me home, tell me one Euro each because they are second-hand, but selling them to me isn´t going to pull them from poverty, so they give them to me as a gift. I resist at first but they convince me.
Very near the thrift shop, which is in the Madrid neighborhood of Arganzuela, we reach their home where Calcetines (“Socks”) welcomes us. He is a huge loving dog that lives with them all and who they pamper a lot. Pedro, who is cooking the dinner, greets us as well. Tonight we are having green beans and puree. There are also three other roommates: one´s Polish, another Portuguese and Pi, who lives attached to his dialysis machine.
While Pedro finishes cooking, the rest are setting the table. Everyone pitches in but today not everybody´s here. Two are missing as they are helping to move the woman who is being evicted. The house here is big, they have two bathrooms and the bedrooms are doubles. Gloria has got her own living space and “Socks” seems pleased that all pay some attention to him.
“Has somebody already brought the plates? Do we have enough silverware? How many are we tonight?” Through the house the comings and goings from the kitchen to the dining-room can be heard.
“Of course you are invited to dinner but we don´t want to keep you from other plans?”
“Gloria, why are you doing this?” I ask her while she is serving the puree. “What do you gain?”
“It probably sounds typical but I do it for love. I´m a believer and I know I´ll go to heaven with my duties done. I´m very proud of introducing myself in this way to God. I don´t have any family so they are my family. That´s the best part. The worst is that sometimes you believe that someone is something that later you discover they´re not and it deceives you. However, oftentimes it´s the contrary. I also feel bad when you fight for them, you get them up and then they leave you for a job you found them, and disappear as if they never knew you. Sometimes, if you´re not backing them up, they fail. And then maybe their employer calls you and those are doors that close for good…”
“ I make them respect me. They come emotionally distraught but when you fill in this void, they begin to consider you like a mother, a friend, a supporter…Have they ever insulted me? Only three out of one hundred sixty have. But the experience, above all, has been positive. “Now I´m very well-protected because “my strong men”, who I live with, know the new arrivals well and they warn me”.
“I’m very trusting. I haven’t got criteria to choose some over others. I give an opportunity to everyone. If later they don’t respond, then I was mistaken, but I never reject anybody. I select them in relation to their needs or illness. In the end I’ve been able to convert the NGO into a family and yes, we go everywhere together -on holidays too, with Socks as well! And if I pull together more thrift shops and we earn more money, maybe we could open another house…”
Pedro, Frederico, Joaquin and Pi are eating and now and again nod to what she’s saying. Everyone agrees that they adore her and that for them she’s an angel – their sister, mother, and confidante. She’s the one who has given them the strongest hugs in the worst moments –in drugged up states, out in the street and nowadays with this crisis.
I realize when I leave their home with two new books in my purse and a full stomach that Gloria has already given to me as well.