The homeless who find shelter in Madrid’s Terminal 4

Barajas’ Airport provides a safe place to sleep for a small band of people

Juan José Lorenzo sleeps in T4.
Juan José Lorenzo sleeps in T4.Samuel Sánchez

On May 26, 2013, shortly after he was released from jail, Edu decided to walk from Madrid to Zaragoza, a 300-kilometer trip that he calculated would take about 20 days. But on his first night, in the northeastern outskirts of the capital looking for shelter, he ended up in Barajas Airport’s Terminal 4, and there he has stayed ever since, along with at least 30 other homeless people who do their best to pass unnoticed among the more than 100,000 passengers who arrive and depart on the 1,000 or so flights that come in and out of here each day.

Edu says the trick to keeping the Richard Rogers-designed roof over his head is to look like any other passenger. That means being properly dressed, clean-shaven, and pushing a trolley with a couple of bags on it around all day, as though about to check in for a flight, or having just arrived home. The airport offers those able to keep up appearances a safe place to sleep; clean toilets and washing facilities; heating in the winter, and air conditioning in summer; the possibility of earning a few euros from looking after real passengers’ bags; 24-hour cafeterias and even 15 minutes of free internet a day.

The passengers are wearing blinkers. We might as well be invisible for all the difference it makes” Manuel, Terminal 4 resident

Spain’s airports are public spaces, and AENA, the Spanish airports authority, has no issue with people who want to shelter in them, as long as they don’t cause any problems: Barcelona’s El Prat airport moved its homeless people on after altercations there in 2011.

If you stop for a few moments among the hustle and bustle of Terminal 4, and take the time to look carefully, it’s usually possible to spot one of its inhabitants – perhaps hanging around the cafeteria waiting for someone to leave an unfinished meal or coffee, or explaining to a traveler that they have lost their passport and need money to pay for emergency documents.

A group of Bulgarian and Moldovan men there have learned how to remove the tokens from the trolleys and will provide passengers arriving at the drop-off point with one in return for a euro – “We’re surviving as best as we can,” says a middle-aged man who calls himself André. Many of the airport’s various services, including trolleys, luggage handling and suitcase shrink-wrapping, are available this way. Labor unions recently staged a protest at Terminal 4: “We’re sick and tired of it. The situation is out of control,” says an employee at a suitcase shrink-wrap concession.

Sleeping rough in Madrid

Every two years Madrid City Hall conducts a survey of the number of people sleeping rough in the capital. Last week, a group of volunteers working for the Samur emergency health service scoured the city’s streets, but the figures have not yet been released.

The last survey in 2012 revealed that there were an estimated 700 homeless people in the capital. But that figure is expected to have increased substantially as a result of the ongoing crisis. It also found that around 23 percent of homeless people have a university degree, and more than 50 percent of those sleeping rough have been doing so for two or more years.

It’s getting dark outside, and the temperature’s falling fast. As the evening wears on, there are fewer flights, and Terminal 4’s homeless community becomes more visible. One of them, Manuel, describes the airport as a microcosm where the daily life of the men (and some women) like him go unnoticed: “The passengers? They’re wearing blinkers. You could carpet the floor with €500 notes and they wouldn’t notice. We might as well be invisible for all the difference it makes,” he says, dressed smartly in pleated trousers, black moccasins and an ironed shirt, and carrying two cellphones in his pockets. Before falling on hard times, this well-mannered and able man says he worked as a security guard protecting Spanish ships in the Indian Ocean. He seems out of place here, and is held in high regard by the other occupants of the airport.

Manuel, who says he is just passing through, is usually accompanied by Juan José Lorenzo, who has spent around half his life on the street, and has been living in the airport for around two years. Scraping by on a €300-a-month pension, he says he spends his days in the center of Madrid, volunteering with the ATD Fourth World anti-poverty NGO, traveling to and from the airport by Metro. He says he also attends theater classes. He could afford to pay for a room in a flop house, or sleep in a shelter, but says that T4 is warm, and allows him to eat breakfast at McDonald’s each day and access the free internet using the laptop he carries around. But above all, he says he values the freedom to do what he likes with his time, perhaps the only advantage to having no home.

Juanjo sleeps atop a makeshift mattress of newspapers alongside a friend in a quiet corner of the departure area of Terminal 4, next to the lottery booth. He says that one day he’ll reclaim the sleeping bag he left in a public shelter. He’s 56, and says he’s spent 21 of those years without a home after losing his job at a metals company. He comes to the airport because it’s safe, warm, and provides bathrooms where he can have a quick wash. Then there’s the bar in the arrivals area, where he’ll sometimes meet others sleeping in the airport and maybe watch a soccer game on TV. But he says he prefers to keep a low profile. “We like to camouflage ourselves, blend in. They won’t let you in here if you look like a truck has hit you. And anybody who starts any trouble is just going to make it difficult for the rest of us, so they get thrown out,” he says, sipping on a coffee at his usual spot, the McDonald’s restaurant.

They’re invisible to most people. But they are safe, they’re able to eat, and to stay clean” Darío Pérez, head of Samur Social

AENA staff, accompanied by security guards, make regular evening vigils to check on the homeless in Terminal 4, as well as those sleeping rough in Barajas’ other terminals. The airport authorities allow health workers to provide care within the building two days a week. “The airport allows the people sleeping there to remain anonymous,” says Darío Pérez, head of Samur Social, the division of Spain’s emergency health services that provides care for homeless people and the vulnerable: “They’re invisible to most people. But they are safe, they’re able to eat, and to stay clean. Terminal 4 is a comfortable and accessible place.”

After spending a few months in the airport, many of its temporary residents have gained in-depth knowledge of how the place works. They tell stories of the gangs who operate here, of the companies that manipulate flights, of the drug mules who get caught. They also know that Barajas is losing out to Barcelona, which now handles more passengers, and that any time soon the airport will be privatized, meaning they will no longer be allowed to stay here. So next time you fly out of Barajas, take the time to look around, and you might just spot one of the inhabitants of Terminal 4.

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