From Monday to Friday, a team of doctors, hair stylists and social workers drive around the capital of Venezuela in the Panabus, a vehicle that is being used to bring free aid and services to Caracas’ homeless population. However, the team does more than provide just short-term assistance. They also help connect people sleeping rough to longer-term housing solutions.
The revamped former public bus has been operational since October. The green and blue bus has a shower, a doctor’s office, a small salon and a kitchenette inside.
The project is run through the Santa en las Calles Foundation (Santa in the Streets). For the past 12 years, this organisation has been providing gifts and meals to the most needy members of society each holiday season.
However, as the country plunges ever further into crisis, the team decided that it wanted to continue helping all year long. So was the beginning of the Panabus project, says Carlos De Veer, one of its’ founders.
"Unfortunately, seeing families with 5- or 6-year-old children looking for something to eat in trash dumps no longer surprises me”
The economic crisis gripping Venezuela has pushed more and more people to the streets. A few years ago, I would have said that most people living in the streets were addicts. Now, even if there aren’t official statistics, we’ve seen a real rise in the number of families sleeping rough, sometimes with newborn babies.
I would estimate that about 20% of the people on the streets are unaccompanied minors. Unfortunately, seeing families with 5- or 6-year-old children looking for something to eat in rubbish bins no longer surprises me.
In 2017, the "Santa en las calles" team in Caracas got together to try to think of a project that we could run all year. That’s when we got the idea for this bus, which would provide a place for homeless people to bathe, eat and get access to medical care.
Many homeless families and unaccompanied minors use the Panabus’s services. (Credit: Panabus)
Last February, De Veer and his colleagues bought an old public bus that was destined for the scrap yard. The foundation used its own funds as well as donations from several sponsors to completely renovate the bus. They also hired a full-time team.
Regular citizens came up with the idea for this project, but we needed professionals to run it. Now, we have a team of 12 people. We have a janitor, a driver and a manager, as well as a team of doctors and hair stylists who all take turns.
We also hired several mediators who approach homeless people in the streets and explain the services that the bus provides. These mediators were, at one time, homeless or addicts themselves so they understand how it works on the streets.
We make two rounds a day from Monday to Friday: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. We always drive a different route. Each day, we help six or seven people.
When someone climbs on the bus, we give them the opportunity to wash up and to change into clean clothes. Then, we start discussing solutions with the person. At first, people didn’t really believe in us. They aren’t used to free services so they were wary.
But as soon as we establish trust, we end up really having fun together. On occasion, if they are willing, we’ve brought addicts to treatment centres. For the time being, our biggest victory is finding housing for a young couple, Alejandra Miranda and Rubén Suárez, who lost their jobs and ended up on the streets with their newborn. We helped them get into temporary government housing.
From an economic to a humanitarian crisis
After just one month in circulation, the Panabus helped to find temporary lodging for 12 people, according to De Veer. He hopes to attract new donors so as to keep developing the project.
Venezuela has been locked in a serious economic crisis since 2014. The country is experiencing acute shortages of basic necessities, such as food and medicine, and dizzying inflation (800% in 2017).
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This has led to a humanitarian crisis, according to rights group Human Rights Watch. A study in 2016 showed that, due to the shortages, 75% of Venezuelans had lost 8.5kg (equivalent to just over 18 pounds) in a year. The lack of medicine has led to the resurgence of illnesses that had been all but eradicated, such as malaria and diphtheria.