We Never Close! The People’s Palace.
The Windmill Theatre in London’s West End was famous during the years of World War II for saying, “We never close.” But there’s a building in Valencia that can say the same. For one hundred and four years, since its opening on 2 July, 1906, through peace and civil war, flood and virtual famine, the grand ornate doors of Casa Caridad have stood open, offering a hot meal to everyone, irrespective of race, colour, creed, nationality, social status, or infirmity.
I sit at a long boardroom table with Sequoia, a group of young Spanish businessmen, (whose tag is ‘How can I help you?’), enjoying a bowl of puchero, a rich and wholesome stew of meat, vegetables and noodles. Beside me sits Antonio Casanova, President of the Asociación Valenciana de Caridad for the last ten years, although his involvement with the charity goes back almost three decades. We’ve been told that we are eating exactly the same meal that is being served to anywhere between 350-450 people in the public dining room one floor below.
To be honest, at first I feel a little uncomfortable. Yes, the food might be the same but we are eating it in a situation far more elegant. And tomorrow most of us can afford go to a decent restaurant while the diners below will come back to the same amenities. But as Antonio weaves the history of Casa Caridad with the magical touch of someone who has devoted much of his life to raising its public profile, I begin to accept that there are far more angles for doing good than simply dropping a couple of coins in a collection tin. It’s by getting the rich and influential on your side that you can help more of those who can’t help themselves.
In a way, that idea goes back to the origins of Casa Caridad. In 1906, the Mayor of Valencia, José Sanchis Beregon, a pretty smart cookie by all accounts, brought together fifty of the great and the good; aristocrats, artists, businessmen and the like, and convinced them of the need to provide a daily hot meal for those who didn’t have the wherewithal to pay for it themselves. This was to be a city-wide project – they hadn’t got around to using fancy words like ‘initiative’ in those days – totally free of influence from church, state, political allegiance or governmental dictat. And it’s remained totally independent from day one.
“I think that’s one of the most important elements of Casa Caridad,” Antonio tells me. “Never, ever, have we had to answer to anyone, other than the people we provide our services to.” That’s not to say that they don’t seek allegiance with those with a bit of clout. For example, the Mayor of Valencia, or at the moment, the Mayoress, Rita Barberá, is always the Presidente de Honor, but there is no party allegiance. Like the whole of Spanish life, it helps to keep in with the Mayor!
Money was raised by public subscription to build the four thousand square metre ‘People’s Palace’ on Paseo de la Pechina, which is still the centre of operations today. (Writer’s note. At no point will you see the words ‘People’s Palace’ in any Associación documents, but the building must have seemed palacial to the street people who first ate there, so I make no apologies for inventing the name.)
If you don’t expect to see a hot meal from one day’s dawn to the next, the simple fact that you know you can go to a place for a good feed at least once a day is a bit of a bonus. But in 1934 Casa Caridad took another major step. It set up one of the first albergues in Spain, a place where the down-and-out knew that they could get a bed for the night, as well as a hot meal.
“At that time there was nowhere provided by the town hall that people could sleep,” says Antonio, “so we opened the first place in the city that street people knew they would be welcomed without any questions.” And things don’t change. Anyone can simply turn up, ask for a meal or a bed and get one. But another major step in 2000, to welcome a whole new millennium, went way beyond simply a place to stay.
“You and I can go into a museum or a gallery just to look at the art on display. We don’t feel uncomfortable. But people who have spent years of their life on the streets don’t realise that these places are for everyone. They feel as if they aren’t allowed to go in. In 2000 we made a major reconstruction of the building. We put in seventy bedrooms that anyone can use for a night or a few weeks. But we also changed the way we interact with out clients. Everyone who comes through these doors is offered the opportunity of an interview with specially trained people, including psychologists. They simply sit down and talk. For some people this is probably the first time in their life that someone has shown even the slightest interest in them. We don’t try to tell then what we think is best for them; we ask what they want, what they think they need. Can you imagine how someone feels after years of being totally insignificant to suddenly find someone who actually wants to know what you want? I think that perhaps that’s the most important thing we can do; just listen. Most people who come here have never been listened to in their life.”
A guardaria for children whose parents are working but can’t afford private fees; simple cookery classes of good, wholesome food; training in such basics as how to be clean and dress tidily, something that most of us take for granted; this is what Casa Caridad excels in. But with the frightening maelstrom of change that the crisis of the last couple of years has brought, has Casa Caridad seen a change in their clients?
“Even as recentlyas a couple of years ago most of our clients would have been street people,” says Antonio. “Drug addicts, alcoholics, people with mental problems. We welcomed them all. But with the crisis the profile has changed. Now a large percentage of people who come for lunch are people who no longer have the basic necessities of life. They may have a roof over their head, but they can’t afford a hot meal each day. We see middle class families bringing their children in school uniform, to make sure they get a good meal each day. We see immigrants who have come to Spain searching for work so that they can send money back to their families to support them in poorer countries. We see everyone, from every social background, from every nationality. And we turn no-one away.”
I remember my life thirty years ago in Manchester, when I would go a couple of times a week to a kitchen run by Bhuddists for a simple meal of rice and vegetables. Free. I had no money to offer. Thanks to whatever god we put our faith in, I don’t have to do that any more. But some people do. And the Casa Caridad is there for them.
For further information contact Casa Caridad, Tel. 96 391 1726, http://www.casacaridad.com/
Groups interested in the work of the Associación de la Casa Caridad can contact Guadalupe Ferrer, who will arrange a visit and lunch, with an explanation of the work of the Association.