The Routine of Not Owning Keys

María José en Jardines de Murillo / CELIA ARCOS

María José and Paco don’t know each other, but neither of them has a home. In this text they describe their lives without keys, the passing of time without a roof.


María José finishes spraying down the cashpoint where she has slept with mint spray, gathers her belongings, ties up her two dogs and puts her two cats in a Mercadona shopping cart. As every morning, she leaves the cashpoint before the bank director or the cleaning lady arrives. As every morning, her routine begins before 8 a.m. “When I started living on the streets, six or seven years ago, there were more cashpoints open. Now since people can pay with their phones, there are fewer available,” she explains, as she tries to keep Rex, a small four-year-old Beagle, silent. María José is 60 years old and she has never slept outdoors. Since she first found herself living on the streets, she knew she had to keep herself safe in a cashpoint or in indoor places because of her feminine condition. María José is one of the 444 people who, according to the inventory done in 2016 by the Seville City Council and by several associations, live on the streets of the city. Paco, a Sevillian man of 64  years,  prefers  waking  up on some bench, on a curb, or in any small space that he finds in the street. The shelter is not comfortable for him. He does not like that they all share the same place; Paco says that you can find yourself in difficult situations with people under the influence of alcohol or drugs. “The shelter is a hodgepodge. Anyone not wanted somewhere else is sent there,” Paco complains.

María José and Paco’s stories on the streets have similar starting points. Both ended up living on the streets after the death of their parents, as a result of a host of familiar disagreements and labor disadvantages. For Francisco, a worker of the Social  Emergencies  Intervention  Team’s  Streets Unit of Seville, one of the aspects of working with homeless people is the family ties. “At the technical level, we work hard to regain their family ties and self-esteem. They need to improve and cherish their relationships.” María José has some cousins and uncles, but says she does not want to bother them. She stutters the word “pride,” she thinks twice before saying it, but at the end, she ends up chewing it. “Maybe it’s out of pride, I do not want to annoy them,” she says. Paco’s family knows nothing about  his  situation.  After his  mother’s death, two heart attacks and poor health, he just decided to sever all ties with them.

Paco spends many of his afternoons at the Public Library Infanta Elena / CELIA ARCOS

An old woman stops by María José’s cart and greets her. “María José, have you seen Emilio’s dog? Hegot lost yesterday.” “I don’t think so; if he was around here, he would have stayed to play with Rex and the kitties.” “Well… if you see him, let me know!”

She uses sunny mornings for washing and drying her clothes at the Jardines of Murillo. There, she becomes a tourist attraction; they stopped by her and take photos of her extravagant cart, pets, and they even take pictures of her. She sets up a huge camp there. For a euro, she buys detergent. “A friend who also lives on the streets recommended it to me; you can get it really cheap in that shop, and since I want my clothes to have a good smell, I always sprinkle a little on,” she says with satisfaction. For Paco, keeping himself and his clothes clean is a habit as well. “If it has been that way during my whole life, why should I change that now, just because I am living on the streets?” Paco thinks there are people who are careless about their appearance and that refl cts negatively on everyone who lives on the streets.

Apart from their looks, some of the stereotypes damaging homeless people are drug addiction and alcoholism. In the last survey by the National Institute for Statistics in 2012, the percentage of homeless people not consuming alcohol in Spain was 56%, whereas that of drugs was 63%. “Because of the image projected by some, they all are stigmatized,” indicates Francisco. “I don’t like asking for money or parking cars, my only vices are cigarettes and coffee,” Paco explains while he turns one of the pages of the latest science fiction book he is reading.

María José carries a portrait of the Virgin Macarena amongst her belongings / CELIA ARCOS


At  lunchtime,  a  new  tour  begins.  Some  days, María José eats the scarce food she could buy or things  she  was  given  from  people  who  already know her. Some other days, she takes her cart and her pets and drags them to some of the soup kitch- ens around the city. “I go in and out as fast as I can to not leave the animals on their own very long in the street, since I cannot go into the canteen with them.” When the volunteers who see her on the streets give her food, they always keep some leftovers for them, knowing her cats like mackerel.

A group of  people  crowds  at  the  San  Juan de Dios soup kitchen on Misericordia Street. A woman, tired, leans on the trunk of the tree that gives her shade. Another man waiting at the door tries to open it with the end of the crutch he leans on. From Mondays to Fridays, Paco comes to this dining room. Different religious institutions and private organizations, as well as the local adminis- tration, try to cover the basic needs of the homeless in Seville. For Paco, this help is just a Band-Aid to patch the situation of the people living on the streets, “so we don’t starve to death,” he says.


Even though most homeless people are men, mostly of Spanish nationality, between 45  and 64, people who come to the soup kitchens are very diverse, from young women and foreigners to whole families. Every afternoon, once he has finished lunch, Paco visits the Public Library Infanta Elena, between María Luisa Park and the dock of the Guadalquivir, where he can read, watch some movies and protect himself from the cold weather in the winter and from the heat in the summer. Sometimes, he falls asleep; the seats are broad and upholstered in a thin dark fabric that invites him to rest. Other times, it is one of his fellows who falls asleep between books, and when it’s time to leave the library, Paco wakes them up and tells them it’s time to go. “Some of them go to the restrooms and try to clean themselves up, but others, since they do not sleep well at night, just take off their shoes and crash there.” Paco’s voice is soft and calm, his tone does not reveal absence of a roof, of a house, of a mattress. Paco might look like anyone else in line at the supermarket, in the drugstore buying ibuprofen, or in a bar asking politely if he can use the bathroom, because Paco is just one of us.

On the streets, there are social classes, there are acquaintances and strangers. Paco explains the hierarchy underpinning  the  social  balance of those who have no home. Separating single words with his hands, he puts on the first level those who have been on the streets the longest; on the second one, those who spent some time in jail. “Of course there are classes,” he confirms flatly, nodding his head. For María José, gender is the dividing line. “To avoid putting myself at risk, I act crazy. I frighten men away and therefore they don’t get close to me. They think of me as the crazy cart lady.” The danger and vulnerability are higher if you are a woman living on the streets. María José remembers the case of a homeless woman who was raped by men also living on the streets. While she describes the situation, she opens a toiletry kit and takes out a jar –coconut milk, as it is written on the label–, sinks her fingers in it and, forthwith, rubs on her skin what for her is a moisturizing cream. “I like to look af- ter myself,” she explains with her face pale from the lotion.

In 2015, Sevillian associations working with homeless people were alarmed by an increase of the number of women who were spotted living on the streets. Manuela and Polina are some of them. The second one, of Russian nationality, lives with her male partner. Apart from the emotional component, the presence of a man by her side offers her safety. Manuela hides her feminine condition with manly aesthetics, a shaven head and loose clothing. María José, in her sixties, has created her own method of defense: act crazy.

María José’s cart and belongings at the Jardines de Murillo / CELIA ARCOS


For Francisco, social worker of Seville’s City Council, the main objective of the social work with homeless people is to each them to be self reliant and independent. María José awaits an answer from a lawyer and from the bureaucracy on the granting  of  social  assistance.  According to them, a ceiling over their heads is not enough for moving off of the streets. Paco insists on the need to create a network of projects and activities that incentivizes them to use their free time. The self-esteem, according to the social worker, is essential for dignifying the homeless. Paco uses the term “marginalized” once and again to refer to the homeless; on the other hand, María José chooses “beggars.” “We must help them to improve the way in which they perceive themselves. We are all equal; the difference is their situation has led them to live on the streets. We work to empower them,” says Francisco.

The evening comes and the routine finishes or begins. They do not search because they already have dibs, the suburban places they will sleep. Some of them stay in the municipal shelter, others in some cashpoint that hopefully they will find open, and the rest of them on the street. María José prepares the spray for the following morning to disguise the smell of her cats and dogs. Before going to sleep, Paco remembers which page of his science fiction story he left off on.

There are 444 homeless people in Seville. About half  sleep on  the streets. The day  their mothers died, the street became no longer a place of transition, a means to an end, or the avenue or sidewalk of their walk home for María José and Paco; it turned into an end, the place to stay and the being of the homeless.