Some have been camping for years; others have just arrived. El Cable and Las Chapas beaches were the first to be occupied by homeless campers, but now other stretches of Marbella's coastline have become “home” to people whose lives have taken a turn for the worse.
“This is our home,” say two of them, inviting us into their camp, in which two sunbeds and a mattress have been made into an improvised bed. Spread around the stark space are all types of objects that have been picked up from the street, and personal possessions from better times. After all, their lives have not always been like this.
They say their names are Verónica and Estefan. She worked in industrial laundries when she came to Spain 20 years ago, from a country at war to which she refuses to return. “Return, where? A tank knocked my house down,” she says.
Estefan, her partner, also came to Spain when the economy was booming several years ago, and had no difficulty finding work when he arrived: maintenance, electrical work and even as a packer in the factory. When the crisis hit, everything went wrong. They met a few years ago, in Marbella, and their journey eventually ended on El Cable beach.
What do they live on? Estefan says he currently receives a pension “of about 400 euros a month, but it'll only be for 11 months. It's not much for two people. Where can we go, with that money? And when the 11 months are up, what then?” he asks.
They are dreading the onset of bad weather and, especially, the rain. Despite everything, though, they are not planning to leave the area. “Where would we go? Out to sea?” they say.
They tell us that a few weeks ago they received a visit from the Local Police. “They came with a lorry, to take everything away, but this is all we have,” says Verónica. “They went there, too,” she says, pointing east.
She refers to a second camp whose occupants, Caterina and her husband, say they have been there for four years. They are sitting on beach chairs, with a view of a luxury 'chiringuito' bar-restaurant, which opened a few months ago and is only metres away from their makeshift home. In the background you can hear the lively music played to entertain clients sunbathing on the Balinese beds.
A tree offers some shelter, and they have tents held down with ropes. Like their neighbours, they are worried about the rain. “This year we have already had an invasion of spiders, then another one of flies, and now the rain is coming,” they say.
Their problems increase with the autumn. The nights seem endless. They take turns to sleep, because they don't trust anyone.
“He sleeps first and I stay in the chair for a few hours, and then we swap,” explains Caterina. “People come here to steal,” she says.
“Recently people have been coming here to cause trouble,” says her husband, referring to fights which have occurred in the area.
Thanks to Cruz Roja, the Spanish Red Cross, there is enough food for a week on their small beach table. Sometimes they are also able to go and eat at the day centre for the elderly at the bullring. Today, though, Caterina's husband has been able to buy something with money he earned from selling scrap metal.
“I work legally. I have my invoices and I show them to the police,” he insists. A few weeks ago there was an attempt to evict them. “This is our home. We are on the population register at the town hall,” they insist.
That is the paradoxical situation the police encountered: the couple have been officially registered as living on the beach for the past two years. They gave their address as 'El Cable beach, number 1.'
The 'padrón' does not just prove that somebody lives in the municipality; it is also essential in order to access certain rights, such as assistance from the local authorities. In fact the local social services department helps people join, because a law states that people can register even if they lack proper housing.
Because she was registered as living in Marbella, Caterina was able to take part in one of the municipal employment projects for six months. “I worked as a cleaner,” she says.
Didn't she earn enough to live somewhere other than the beach? She says she sent most of the money to Poland; she has a son and daughter there, but has no plans to go back. Nor did the couple accept the suggestion from the Social Services councillor, Isabel Cintado, to move for a time to one of the hostels for the homeless. They also turned down the offer of help to return to their own country.
Like their neighbours on the beach, they came to Spain in the boom years, fleeing from a “difficult” situation in Poland, where they owned a business. They went to Murcia first, and found work with a meat company. Then came the economic crisis.
The local authorities admit this is not an easy situation. The attempts to remove the camps, which have now spread to other parts of the coast, didn't work out as they had hoped. On one hand, there is a humanitarian problem, and on the other a security and health problem.
“They are living illegally, but the problem needs to be dealt with by several different departments, Security, Social Services and Beaches, if these people are to be given support,” says local councillor Manuel Cardeña.
The town hall has begun proceedings which are likely to be lengthy, coordinating the different departments, to put an end to these settlements. The first step involves determining who owns the land upon which these people are camping.
“We have to see if any of it is privately owned, or if it belongs to the port, or the coastal authority,” explain sources in the Local Police.
The next step involves the social services. The new advice centre for the homeless at Huerta Los Guerra is due to open soon. The project was begun by the last council in conjunction with Cruz Roja, and the present council is continuing with it.
“As well as assisting [the homeless] where we can, the idea is that we try to find them work,” says Isabel Cintado.
Attempts to dismantle the camps have been made in the past, when the lives of the people were considered to be in danger, but the problem just moves from one place to another.
Our visit to the camps on El Cable beach was about to come to an end, but then one of the car parking attendants spotted us. “Another one lives over there,” he says, pointing to an area where the Arroyo Primero stream meets the sea.
At first glance nothing is visible because of the vegetation, but behind it lies the drama of José Sánchez. José is from Marbella and used to live in Calle Aduar, but his story is very different to the other people who are camping on the beach.
He tells us he lost “everything”. The death of his father and his brother left him at the point of no return in a very difficult situation. He knows his life is in jeopardy, living in a tunnel built over the stream bed, and he has been moved on several times by the police, but he plans to stay. “I have nothing,” he says.
Javier de Luis, an advisor to Marbella town hall when the tripartite council was in power, says that after the heavy rain last December, that was the first place to which the emergency services were sent.
“He was very lucky. He only just managed to get out on time, because the water was flowing really fast,” he explains.
The council knows that people are also living rough on Las Chapas beach, the area of the sand dunes and in old disused beach bars, which they are using as shelters.
Many of them are used to this way of life now, but it was something that none of them had ever expected.