Taking an early morning or nighttime walk in downtown Tunis, the sight of homeless people, whether in metro or train stations, in the streets lying under a tree or on a slab of cardboard, and even in derelict, abandoned houses, is inevitable. Particularly since the revolution, young and old, men and women are seen living on the streets.
According to Raoudha Somrani, president of Tunisian homelessness non-profit Dar Tounes, the problem is largely a byproduct of the old regime’s neglect and its attempt to conceal the issue rather than address it.
“It was a taboo subject during Ben Ali’s time because he wanted to make people believe that he had achieved an economic miracle. He tried to hide the phenomenon, and banned all manner of non-profit work for this issue. Groups like Basma and Omahet Tounes, in which [former first lady] Leila Ben Ali had direct involvement, were charged with tackling the problem. However, they were actually heaping up money. If homeless people were visible, people would wonder what those two organizations were actually doing,” asserted Somrani.
Habib Dababi, director of the Information and Social Orientation Center of Tunis, a center affiliated with the Ministry of Social Affairs, does not consider the situation particularly alarming. “The country has dealt with this problem before and [the number of homeless people] has not really risen – it just looks like it did,” asserted Dababi.
Dababi explained the recently increased visibility of homeless people as attributable to a less restrictive environment following the revolution. “Now, they are no longer afraid of the police round-ups, during which they were collected against their will. The police can only force homeless people off the streets when they are in real danger, like when their health is at risk,” he explained.
Like with other issues, Tunisia is thus being forced to face a problem that was once swept under the rug. While most Tunisians agree that something must now be done to address the situation, the causes and manifestations at the root of the problem vary widely, making a simple solution difficult.
Somrani explained that abandonment for old people and drug and alcohol abuse for young people remain the primary causes. “Most of them [the homeless population] are young people – approximately 65% – and the rest are old people that have been abandoned by their families. Some of them are teenagers who got into drugs, and cannot maintain their addiction in their parents’ house. So they start to hang out with the wrong crowd. But, it’s hard to categorize them; they each have a different story,” stated Somrani.
Dababi stressed that, given the variance in the circumstances that lead to homelessness, it is important to take into consideration each case individually in order to diagnose the needs of this demographic of Tunisian society appropriately.
“Their lifestyle choice has to be respected. Some willingly chose to lead this type of lifestyle. Others are forced to live on the streets because they came to Tunis to get medical care and don’t have a place to live in. Others are old people who got lost and whose families are looking for them,” stated Dababi.
However, Dababi also explained that one of the most pervasive issue affecting the homeless population concerns a general lack of awareness regarding the services available to them.
“The profusion of homeless people is not due to the lack of shelters but rather to their ignorance of the existence of shelters,” declared Dababi.
Omar Zweeri, 47, from Tataouine and a current resident of one of Tunis’ shelters, related his former unawareness regarding the prevalence of various forms of assistance for homeless Tunisians.
“A social security officer in Tataouine told me about this center. I would be living in the streets otherwise, as I have nowhere else to stay in Tunis,” said Zweeri.
Dababi explained that his organization strives to provide support for Tunisia’s homeless on a number of levels, and that there are set procedures for concerned citizens to ensure that those in need are attended to.
“At the center we have a whole team that takes care of them. We take care of their medical examination. We take care of them on a psychosocial level. Citizens can signal any alarming case of homelessness to the police. The case then gets transferred to the general attorney’s office who later issues an order transferring the person in question to our center,” Dababi stated.
Additionally, Somrani detailed her organization’s objective to provide long-term assistance to this demographic, through social welfare initiatives that strive to assimilate homeless Tunisians as productive contributors to society, while simultaneously meeting the more immediate needs of those who remain on the street .
“Our organization is trying to reintegrate them and offer them training in a certain field so they can fit back into society again. We want the young to benefit from small loans for launching their own projects. It is just a small push to bring them get back into society as active citizens. We also start rounds at 9:00 am on a caravan that patrols the streets. We give them food and a backpack that has a blanket, a warm hat, and a neck scarf,” stated Somrani.
However, in spite of their efforts, both activists acknowledged the existence of a lasting institutional incapacity to address this dilemma adequately.
“One of them died last week – an 80 year old – because of the government’s negligence. The Ministry of Social Affairs has not helped us at all, they have left us on our own. We have not received any kind of help from any governmental body. When I see the way they have overlooked the issue I feel like Ben Ali has never left the country,” said Somrani.
According to Somrani, there are about 300 homeless persons in the greater Tunis area and approximately 2000 in the entirety of the country.
The Information and Social Orientation Center of Tunis is a governmental organization that provides shelter for different social cases. Single mothers, old people who have no family to take care of them or whose family has abandoned them, and people who come to Tunis from interior regions to get medical care characterize the predominance of those seeking the services provided by the organization.