By Angelica Linde & Anouk Slot
José and Tony in a big discussion with one of the waitresses of Robin hood.
In Spain, where homelessness is a big problem, one restaurant in Madrid does what the people expect their government to do: take from the rich, and give to the poor. Or rather, give the wealthy people a chance to both enjoy a good meal and help the homeless.
Outside of the Robin Hood Cafe, Christmas lights are brightening up the streets of central Madrid. An older man, dressed in a grey suit, stands in the doorway welcoming the guests stamping the small paper cards everyone is bringing along. Inside, the tables are decorated with red and white tablecloths. Big baguettes lay next to every set of neatly placed cutlery. Soft music is coming out of the small speakers hanging on the wall next to the plants, that seem to be made of plastic.
“I heard in church about this place, and I have come to this restaurant every day since its opening at the end of November. The food is not perfect, but it’s free”, says 57-year-old Javier Incymrar, who has been homeless for six years now.
Others have only good things to say about Robin Hood. “The food is so fantastic”, Alicia says loudly with a big smile. Across the table, a small South American man is starting to sing a Frank Sinatra song, which makes her dance by the table. “The best part about the food here for me is that it’s not hard to chew. You see, I have very bad teeth”, she says while showing them. “The soup is soft as well as the meat and the bread. I don’t have to feel like an outsider here because I have bad teeth. Also, the people working here are so sweet and are really getting along with all of the guests. It feels like we’re one big family.”
Maria José Romo on her first day of work at the Robin Hood Cafe. Photo: Angelica Linde
A red haired, petite lady is running around between the tables, socializing with the guests while making sure everyone has food in front of them. Her name is Maria José Romo and it is her first day serving food for the homeless at the restaurant. Even though she is new for the homeless guests, they are already joking and laughing together.
The Robin Hood restaurant opened the 29th of November last year and is the latest initiative from the charity Mensajeros de la Paz, founded by Father Ángel Garcia Rodriguez from the San Antón church in Madrid. The idea is using breakfast and lunch earnings from regular customers during daytime to fund and serve free meals for the homeless in the evening. This means one round of 50 people getting a three-course-meal at 7PM and another of 50 people one hour later.
“We’re not worried we have to close down, because we’re earning more than enough money during the day as well as receiving some money from the charity”, says Robin Hood’s spokesperson Lucia Prensa Me. “We were not worried about this initiative not working because we knew there was a need for a place like this”, Lucia continues. “Our charity Mensajeros de la Paz has already been serving breakfasts for the homeless for a while, and went around town to hand out bags of food for the homeless on the streets. When starting this new initiative we created a card stamping system, to make sure that the people who need it the most are the ones getting the food. We only give cards to people who we consider to be in need of food the most. Of course, sometimes it happens that there are more people who want to eat at the restaurant than we can fit. At moments like that, the social workers will decide who are in need of food the most. They take a look at the personal circumstances, the amount of salary they might receive and if they might have any form of support system. But it usually depends on their appearance.”
Madrid has been coping with a homeless problem for years. Since the economic crisis in 2008 the number of homeless people in Madrid has gone up from 600 to 1.900 this year. From the 1990’s until around the early 2000’s, Spain experienced rapid economic growth. Because of these optimistic years full of economic wealth, banks encouraged people to invest in property with money they didn’t have. The house market in Spain exploded and they started building 800.000 new homes, which is more than France, Italy, Germany and the UK combined at the time. This bubble in property, together with the global credit crisis in 2008, made the Spanish property market collapse and brought Spain into a deep recession. Which eventually led to thousands of Spanish people losing their jobs and finally even their homes.
Javier Incymrar is one of the homeless people visiting the Robin Hood Cafe daily. Photo: Angelica Linde
Javier (57) was one of the many people ending up without a home. “It all started after me and my wife got a divorce. From that moment on, I didn’t only need to pay for my own house but for my ex-wife’s house as well, because we had a child together. I was not able to pay for two houses with the one job I had at that time, so I needed to get more jobs. At one point I was working 20 hours a day to be able to pay for everything”, Javier explains. He went for every job opportunity he could get and was working in a lot of different fields. He was working as a teacher, a house fixer, a security guard, a salesman and a hotel employee. “It was crazy. Those hard times brought me into a drinking problem which in the end led me to losing every job I had. That’s where it went downhill rapidly and before I knew it, I had lost everything I ever owned and was sleeping outside in the cold dark streets of Madrid.”
“Come here”, a man wearing a blue sports jacket at the table nearest to the kitchen says to the waitress Maria, and cracks up in a huge toothless smile. He compliments her on today’s menu and she thanks him, while lovingly stroking his shoulder. His name is José and he is more than excited to show us the reason why the Robin Hood restaurant exists. He proudly shows us a picture of Father Ángel Garcia Rodriguez on his smartphone screen, while holding his hand on his heart. “Thanks to him, me and my friends are lucky enough to receive a proper meal every night”, he says. While simultaneously showing his gratefulness and the picture on his phone he is pointing at the man who’s handing out the meals from behind the food counter. This is Father Ángel Garcia Rodriguez himself, who unfortunately is not able to answer any questions, because he’s too occupied with handing out the food.
Father Ángel Garcia Rodriguez in charge of handing out the food. Photo: Angelica Linde
When asked about the quality of the food, his eyes start to sparkle. “It’s great here”, José answers. “The food is very nice. You get an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. On top of that, they serve you at the table just like in a real restaurant. It’s great.” The menu of the day includes a potato soup, meat with salad and bread on the side and yoghurt or pudding as dessert.
During the daytime, the restaurant offers the guests three menu choices. “Every afternoon, we choose one out of the three menus to serve in the evening for our homeless guests”, Lucia says. “Usually this is the menu with the most ingredients left after lunchtime that day. This way, the food will be ready to be served when the guests are arriving.” With having the food ready all at once, the restaurant is able to welcome two rounds of 50 people every night.
The menu of the day was potato soup, meat with salad, bread and yogurt. Photo: Angelica Linde
José is not the only one praising the priest who is behind the concept. At every table, the guests are showing him their gratitude for having a new place where they are not only receiving food, but also love and respect. Father Ángel Garcia Rodriguez got inspired by Pope Francis’ preachings about the importance of giving people dignity, “whether it’s through bread or through work”. Because of his 50 years in charity work, people started a petition to nominate Father Ángel for a Nobel Peace Prize.
“There is a bunch of different places where us homeless people can get food here in Madrid,” Javier Incymrar says. “What makes Robin Hood so different from the others is the fact that it looks like a real restaurant with all the nice decoration and people serving you food. Even though the food could be improved, I’m not complaining. It’s for free after all”.
Javier explains how little the government does to improve the situation for the homeless people of Madrid, or the rest of Spain. According to him, many more job opportunities could be created by adding small changes to the system. For example, simple things like helping the elderly, working as a dishwasher at a restaurant, or helping in a grocery shop. “Actually, Robin Hood is a great example of something I would change about the way things are handled at the moment. Right now, there’s an institution sending people over to work at Robin Hood, but if you ask me I would replace them with homeless people in search for a job. An opportunity like that would change their lives. It would give them not only food, but also a purpose and a feeling of being appreciated and actually contribute to society”, Javier says.
The night is coming to an end and the room is filled with people kissing and hugging each other goodbye. There is no difference between the workers and the homeless at this exact moment. Alicia was not exaggerating the “one big family part”.
If Lucia and the rest of the Mensjajeros de la Paz get it their way, they will expand the Robin Hood concept in the future. “We want to move to a bigger place, or even open one more restaurant, so that we can help not only a hundred, but maybe even two or three hundred homeless people. The best outcome would be if we inspired others to help the ones in need of food and shelter. Maybe even with work opportunities. Because these people can’t live off of this restaurant for the rest of their lives. They don’t need a restaurant. They need a job. They need a home.”