BEIRUT: Albert Kassis has a strict daily schedule, keeping up with the latest news and the bustling street life of Beirut.
The 75-year-old homeless man spends every evening on the doorstep of a closed shop on Hamra Street. There, he keeps his belongings in a neat line of plastic bags by his side.
He doesn’t ask for money, but passersby sometimes place money or food next to him for which he expresses profound gratitude. He organizes whatever he receives in a tidy row. If asked what he wants, he says vegetable or chicken salad and bottles of water.
As the evening wears on, more of Lebanon’s impoverished fill the busy streets, including child beggars, a sign of Lebanon’s growing homeless problem or at the very least those living in dire poverty.
Kassis expresses his dismay over the rising number of child beggars because he believes they’re only being exploited by adults and depend daily on the kindness of strangers to meet their basic needs.
Aside from watching the constant foot traffic on Hamra Street, an area he chose for that very reason, Kassis also spends his time reading newspapers. He dislikes most Lebanese papers, which he views as “dirty” because of their political leanings, instead preferring the London-based pan-Arab daily, Al-Hayat. Kassis prefers to begin conversations in French, and switches to Arabic once he is comfortable with the other person in order to prove his language skills as a proud educated Lebanese citizen.
He doesn’t read literature, a luxury he says is for those who are comfortable in life. Before he became homeless 20 years ago, he was the owner of his own bookshop in Gemmayzeh that eventually closed. With no family to take care of him, his parents both dead and his brother living in a poor suburb of Paris, he was left on his own.
Today, the closest thing he has to a family, or at least a community, are the people who stop for a small talk or offer him small tokens of generosity as they walk to their next destination. He has also formed a friendship with a mankousheh vendor, Jacques Saade, in the area near the highway where he sleeps, who allows Kassis to use his shop’s line to receive calls.
Despite the occasional help he gets, Kassis still hasn’t found a safe place to house his plastic bags, which he said he can’t let out of his sight because he had been robbed in the past. He wanders the streets of Beirut carrying the heavy load each day from Mar Mikhael to Hamra.
Until recently, the issue of homelessness in Lebanon didn’t get much attention, possibly because it remains relatively uncommon and because of the plethora of other social issues facing the country. In January, Ali Abdullah, a homeless man and local icon who spent much of his time around Bliss Street, died during a winter storm. Abdullah’s death sparked outrage and drew greater attention to the issue of homelessness in the country.
Indeed, the story of Kassis is one of the nearly 150 homeless people living on Beirut’s streets. Although Lebanon’s homeless population is far smaller than that of many other countries, activists and academics worry that the apparent rise in homelessness recently could further increase the problem.
“If you don’t take care of them [homeless people] at an early stage, they could enter a downward spiral, and it will be difficult for them to find jobs,” says Sari Hanafi, chair of the department of sociology at the American University of Beirut. “We need to have NGO and state intervention. We need to have more tolerance.”
The death of Abdullah, which was widely mourned throughout Beirut, quickly prompted the launching of initiatives to prevent the same thing from happening to others. A Facebook page, called Fighting Homelessness in Lebanon, has more than 1,200 members. The already-established Anti-Racism Movement has been active in distributing blankets and food to those in need. Most recently, a website called Find Ali, which also includes a Facebook page and a smartphone application, allows users to share the location and description of a homeless person that they come across so help can be sent.
The founder of the Find Ali, Karim Badra, said he had been heartened by the reactions he had gotten, with a person asking him to expand beyond Lebanon. Although some criticize the site for only being made after the death of Abdullah, Badra responds, “The page was made because we came up short.”
Badra also notes that the estimated number of homeless people, which he considers low, is deceptive because they don’t take into account those living in substandard housing that need help with their daily lives.
“There are lots of people who aren’t necessarily homeless, but they’re digging through the garbage and begging for money,” Badra added.
The issue has become more acute with the influx of Syrian refugees, many of whom don’t have the family support that they would back home. Earlier this year, a Syrian man who couldn’t find housing committed suicide in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in south Lebanon.
Many concerned citizens have answered the call for help to curb the growing homelessness problem.
Krystel Tabet, a Beirut-based translator, said that helping the homeless in Lebanon was part of her duty as someone who has a stable home, regardless of the person’s sect or nationality.
“When I see how people are living, I think, ‘Thank God I’m able to give back to some of the people living in our country.’ We can’t deny their existence just because they might be from a different sect,” she said.
Last October, Tabet, along with an informal group of like-minded friends started distributing aid throughout the country to people without housing. They are currently working on a database of homeless people Lebanon, which the group numbers at approximately 150 in the Beirut area, and assessing their needs. She regrets that it took the death of a local icon to awaken people to the issue.
Referring to Abdullah, she says, “To think that a person died because he didn’t have a jacket.”