Hunger and homelessness stalk Portugal's locked-down capital

Lisbon (AFP) –


Pedro Mendonca joins the line and patiently waits for his meal. Until recently, he had a job, a place to live and enough money in his pocket to buy some food and a bottle of beer.

But coronavirus has changed all of that, not just for Mendonca but for dozens like him who now queue to receive a hot meal and some fruit at an old barracks in Portugal's capital Lisbon.

The dishes have been prepared in a school canteen and are distributed by the military. They taste fine but they do not hide the bitter truth that poverty and homelessness have skyrocketed as the virus shuts down the economy.

Portugal has recorded over 17,000 cases of COVID-19 with 567 deaths, many fewer than its neighbour Spain, but enough to send the economy into freefall.

Mendonca, 39, worked in the construction industry but lost his job when the government declared a state of emergency on March 20 and imposed a lockdown.

With no income, he has been sleeping rough for the last two weeks.

"I was paid by the week and when there was no more money I was chucked out," he says, taking an aluminium tray holding a dish of noodles.

"Now I sleep in a corner, anywhere."

Arminda Mestre is 50 and frail. She is another who comes in search of something to eat.

Mestre travels by bus every midday and evening since she can no longer go to the family house where she was babysitting in exchange for meals.

"As long as the epidemic lasts I can't take care of the boy and I have to come here to get food," she says.

- Charities 'disappeared overnight' -

Lisbon has created three food distribution points in recent weeks, which provide more than 2,000 meals a day, and four temporary shelters for the homeless in sports halls and even a swimming pool.

"It is the most important social system that the city has ever seen," says Ricardo Moreira who has been coordinating the municipality's measures.

"The people who survived on odd jobs were the first to be affected, then non-contract workers, and we are already seeing people from the lower-middle class," he explains.

In the absence of volunteers, now confined to their own homes, and of surplus food recovered from restaurants which are now closed, charities that would normally step in to help the most underprivileged "disappeared overnight", says Moreira.

After calling on the military to fill the void, the town hall launched a new volunteering platform which has already registered some 1,200 Lisbon residents.

But homelessness has also emerged as a major crisis.

"The number of people who find themselves on the street exploded," says Moreira.

Before the pandemic, Lisbon had some 360 homeless people known to municipal services, of which around 200 have been accommodated in the new temporary shelters.

But these are now too small to accommodate the numbers who show up there every night.

Pedro Mendonca is not alone.