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Stories from the Streets of Barcelona

A trip to the Arrels Foundation in Barcelona, Spain gave psychology students a deeper look at mental illness and homelessness in the local community.

An NGO working with homeless adults, the Arrels Foundation opens its doors to people living on the streets who are struggling with a myriad of issues. They are a volunteer organization looking to provide comprehensive support to all people interested in leaving the streets behind and improving their quality of life. “They are so respectful of where everyone is. They met people where they were at,” said Professor Ricki Kantrowitz.

Blog_600The group was guided through Barcelona by a man named James who was previously homeless and had benefited from the Arrels Foundation’s services. He provided a completely different lens and new perspective, while walking students through some of the same areas they had visited as tourists. As they stood in an open square, he painted a scene: to the right, the waste bins where our guide James had searched for lunches discarded by schoolchildren, to the left, the benches he used to call home, alongside several other homeless friends. “You don’t see the way up when you’re down there…You feel alone,” said James, with the assistance of a translator.

After seeing what James’s life is like today, discussions on what it makes up a meaningful life commenced among the voyagers and the foundation’s staff. As the organization worked with their service users to rehabilitate and reestablish themselves in the community, this topic was constantly on their minds. Service, education, and connectivity were all ways their service users occupied their time and added value to their own lives as well as those of the community. With a high unemployment rate in Barcelona and an older user base, they did not push unrealistic expectations of employment but rather focused on their patrons’ health and overall happiness. Student Dana Tumbaga, from University of California, San Diego, was struck most by a moment standing with the group outside the recycling center as her guide James described one of his favorite spots to find books. “(Our guide told us) when you have fewer resources you actively look for ways to pursue your passions,” Tumbaga said.

Exploring topics of stigma and stereotyping previously discussed in class, students were quite surprised when their guide unveiled his previous career as a journalist. The details from his past that he shared gave students a humanizing perspective of homelessness. They began to see homelessness not as a choice but as an outcome of a variety of unfortunate circumstances. The organization advocated for these eye-opening experiences so students could see these once homeless individuals in a new light.

Blog_600b“How bad does your situation have to be to leave (your home) and not come back?” thought Sumru Mizrahi, from the University of Virginia. Barcelona’s homeless population includes countless immigrants from surrounding European countries who are drawn to the city for its accessibility, health care, and temperate climate. Growing up in Turkey, Mizrahi now considered these same challenges in her home country. Receiving an influx of Syrian immigrants in recent years, the issue of homelessness is Turkey has been on the rise. But even with the matter pressing, she admitted that the issue was not one she had ever analyzed in depth until this experience. “We’re very ignorant to stuff we haven’t had to deal with,” Mizrahi added.

After they departed the Arrel’s Foundation, students visited the University of Barcelona to hear about work being done on other important health related issues. Graduate students, not much older than themselves, presented on health research and safety in countries spread across three different continents. Students got a taste of how their studies and interests could advance to the next level and be the driving force behind a life of education and service. “(I wanted them to see) people who have a passion to do meaningful work and make a difference,” said Professor Kantrowitz of her class’s day in Barcelona.

  • Culture
  • Service

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