Venezuelan homeless families live in foreign ministry

By Sarah Grainger
BBC News, Caracas

Image caption,
Home from home: The foreign ministry provides a big place to play

Laughter and screams of childish delight echo through the neoclassical corridors of the Casa Amarilla or Yellow House, the headquarters of Venezuela's foreign ministry.

Ministry workers duck as a bright red plastic football soars through the air of the building's historic courtyard.

The atmosphere in the 19th Century palace has changed dramatically since it opened its doors to 140 men, women and children whose houses were destroyed by torrential rains and landslides late last year.

Children play in the courtyard and the surrounding offices have been turned into makeshift bedrooms.

Bunk beds line the walls, and lockers provide space for the few personal possessions that people were able to salvage from their homes.

"The little that we had, we had to leave there, we just brought our clothes and shoes," says Ismer Astudillo, a 55-year-old grandmother who has been living in the foreign ministry for more than two months.

Her family home, which she and her husband had built in the early 1980s in a suburb of Caracas, was destroyed by heavy rain at the end of November.

"There was water streaming down the walls, and the force of it was astonishing," she said.

Image caption,
It is not clear how long the families will actually live in the ministry

As the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, expanded in the mid to late 20th Century, people flocking to the city to find work built houses wherever they could find space, often on precarious hillsides, with little consideration for safety.

Torrential rains in November and December saturated the soil and caused major landslides, leaving tens of thousands homeless.

The government has responded by sheltering them in an array of buildings including a shopping centre car park and the international airport.

President Hugo Chavez opened the doors of his presidential palace, Miraflores, to homeless families. Dozens of ministry buildings have also been pressed into service as temporary shelters.

Official visitors

At the Casa Amarilla, a laundry has been set up in the car park, and women load the machines with clothes while drivers come and go on official ministry business.

Families staying at the ministry are allotted tasks every day, from cleaning different parts of the building, to helping out in the industrial kitchen where all the meals are prepared.

This communal lifestyle offers little privacy. Dina Gomez, her young daughter and baby share a room with six other families.

Image caption,
The recent floods worsened the housing crisis for many families

"It feels like there's nowhere really quiet that you can go, especially when you have a baby," she said.

But she says there are perks to living in the ministry as ministry business and official visits go on as usual.

"It's exciting, we saw some Brazilian visitors the other day… it's really unforgettable," Dina says.

None of the families at the ministry has any idea when they will be permanently rehoused, and some say they have been told they could be living in the Casa Amarilla for up to 18 months.

Their predicament is symptomatic of the large-scale housing crisis in Caracas and other Venezuelan cities, a problem that is likely to be a key issue in the run-up to presidential elections in 2012.

Squatters have tried to seize unoccupied buildings in various parts of the capital in recent weeks.

President Chavez has brokered deals with several foreign governments, including Iran, Russia and Belarus, to build new housing projects but the opposition says it will be too little, too late.

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