BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – Horacio Avila, 49, is thin and short. He has leathery skin and a long, gray beard. He wears his shoulder-length gray hair in a ponytail.
Avila used to be homeless and live on the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital. Now, he serves as the director of Centro de Integración Monteagudo, a center that provides shelter, education and employment to 110 men who, like him, used to live on the streets. Some struggle with addiction, depression or disabilities.
The center sits in Parque Patricios, a middle-class neighborhood in Buenos Aires. On the sidewalk in front of the building’s entrance, residents sit in chairs facing the street and enjoy the summer heat.
The entrance is a dark green metal gate with a door in the middle. Inside, a security guard mans a desk. To the left, a hallway and a door lead to Avila’s office. With a serious look on his face, he reviews and sorts through the mountain of papers on his desk.
Avila lifts his eyes, takes a deep breath and begins to share how his life changed after the country’s 2001 economic crisis. Formerly an upholsterer, he lost everything he had – including his family.
“With the crisis of 2001, I didn’t have any more work,” he says. “I couldn’t pay the rent. I lost everything.”
He used the last of his money to send his family to another province, where they had relatives.
“I even sold my tools,” he says. “With that money, I bought two tickets – one for my daughter and another for my ex. I bought them to Córdoba, one-way. I kept 12 pesos in my pocket. That night, I slept in the street.”
With less than $4, Avila began living at the doors of the Biblioteca del Congreso de la Nación, the library of the national Congress in downtown Buenos Aires. He gathered with other homeless men on the grand building’s steps to drink “maté,” a tea-like infusion typical to the region.
When one of these new companions, a man shy of 40 years old, died after falling into an alcohol-induced coma, the men decided to take action in order to change their living situation.
“We saw many things happen, from drugs and alcohol to the death of Colo, a friend from the street corner,” Avila says. “That made us become aware of organizing ourselves. We realized that it could affect us, and we began to think, ‘We organize ourselves, we do something to change history.’”
The men envisioned forming an organization of people who were living on the streets. They began to seek funding from various institutions, from the psychology department of the Universidad de Buenos Aires to the city legislature.
The group also organized marches to the Ministerio de Trabajo, Empleo y Seguridad Social to ask for free courses so that they could learn new skills in order to support themselves economically. In 2004, they held a hunger strike in Plaza de Mayo, the plaza in front