Immigrants living under bridges in Lisbon have become more and more evident since 2018. Image: António Cotrim/ Lusa
Immigrants living under bridges in Lisbon have become more and more evident since 2018. Image: António Cotrim/ Lusa

Immigrants in majority among Lisbon’s homeless

Homeless population has mushroomed in last five years

Between Gare do Oriente and Cais de Sodré station, passing through Rossio in Lisbon, tents and small shelters made of cardboard are crowded together, with immigrants outnumbering Portuguese who live on the streets.

All the homeless immigrants approached by Lusa this week were undocumented, although some had left behind a job in the greenhouses of the Alentejo.

They have come from Brazil, India, Nepal, Morocco, Gambia, Senegal, Angola and many other countries, some can only communicate in English, and although life in Lisbon isn’t going well for them – especially with the winter wind and rain – few want to go back to their countries, as they believe they’ll be able to find work and organise their lives here.

For the time being, they live off the help of organisations such as Comunidade Vida e Paz (Life and Peace Community).

Every weekday evening at 8pm, the community’s vans leave from nearby Avenida dos Estados Unidos da América for various points in the capital, loaded with sandwiches, yogurts, blankets and other goods, including clothes, which they know the homeless people on their watch need.

On the night that Lusa’s reporters accompanied community volunteers, 190 bags of sandwiches were distributed across a route where the majority of people being helped were immigrants.

“We now have cheese-only sandwiches,” volunteer Joana tells them, pointing out that there are many Muslim immigrants who won’t eat ham (because it’s pork). 

Celeste Cunha, coordinator of Comunidade Vida e Paz, describes how “immigrants account for a large part of the significant growth in the number of homeless people” in recent years. The organisation estimates a 25% increase.

Wiston Dyone, a 39-year-old Brazilian who arrived from Brazil in 2019 –  and the only immigrant who agreed to be filmed, alongside Portuguese Arlindo Jesus, his ‘companion in misfortune’ – explains why he is living on the streets: “I’m going through a bad time. Almost five months ago I ended a marriage, I lost two daughters in the last year,” he told Lusa, a few days after leaving prison, where he spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve “for fighting” and breaking a shop window.

“And they keep calling me almost every day to pay €430 to bury my daughter, who I didn’t even have. Tomorrow I’m going there to see what happened to that (…) they didn’t even respect the mourning,” he complains.

But he is trying to “readapt”. Claiming to have been working since he was 14, Wiston says that in Portugal he has worked “on building sites, in house painting” and cites the names of the companies that have employed him, paying only €5 an hour, the same as he received in 2009, the last time he was in Portugal. “It’s absurd,” he says.

In Brazil he had a good life, he adds, but he came because of his children, who were in Peniche.

“So I chose Portugal as my home and I’m going to adapt,” he told Lusa.

Returning to his country, despite the difficult situation in which he lives, is out of the question for Wiston.

“I have my heart here,” and “until the storm passes, we have to try to learn from it,” he said, outside Arlindo’s tent, next to the Avenida Infante Dom Henrique viaduct, which protects dozens of tents on both the land and river sides. 

The important thing for Wiston Dyone “is not to stand still”, because in “a week at most” he hopes to be off the streets.

For the time being, he lost his passport and all his documents on the day of the fight in December, which ended with him spending time in prison. Now he is being asked for photo ID to process his CPLP visa, but he doesn’t have one.

Arlindo de Jesus calmly watches the conversation. When asked how many immigrants there are, he says: “There are three or four Brazilians here, half a dozen Portuguese and the rest are Nepalese, Indians and there are a lot of Moroccans.”

Arlindo, 42, from Guimarães, is also hoping to get off the streets, but complains that the work he gets, unloading “some lorries for the Chinese”, for which he is paid between 10 and 30 euros a day, doesn’t pay for a home. He started living rough in 2016; managed to get off the streets, but ended up ‘going back’.

Further along the route, in Largo de São Carlos, under an arcade, Lusa found Sarabjit Singh. “Barefoot, covered in a plaid blanket that hides his bare legs on the cardboard where he lies, one of them with a large wound on a swollen knee, the young Indian tells how he slipped on a rainy day on the Portuguese paving stones and got sick. He didn’t go to hospital, but went to a nearby pharmacy and found the support that enabled him to get better.

Sarabjit Singh arrived in Lisbon from Odemira, where he worked in the greenhouses that employ so many countrymen and women. The plan was to find work, but he lost his documents, doesn’t speak Portuguese, no longer has a mobile phone, shoes or trousers. All he has to wear is a cloth jacket and a shirt.

“I can’t work for the next seven days,” he told Lusa, looking frightened and confessing that he needs help.

When volunteer Alexandra gave him a pair of size 41 trainers, he tried his best to put them on, but they didn’t fit – and his eyes, which had taken on a certain sparkle for a moment, lost it again.

Even so, the immigrant doesn’t even consider the possibility of returning to India.

“No, I’m going to evolve, I really believe I’ll be able to work,” he said.

Text: Ana Tomás Ribeiro/ Lusa

NB This stark report follows a study last month by the Observatory on Migrations which warned how much suffering is entailed in the immigration ‘boon’ that has ‘saved’ Portugal’s Social Security System from financial implosion.