MADRID: It is early evening at a restaurant in central Madrid and Jose Silva sits down for a meal of rice, meatballs and vegetables as waiters flit from one table to another.
All very normal, except for one crucial detail: Silva, 42, cannot afford to pay.
He lives rough under the platform of a cable car station in Madrid’s sprawling Casa del Campo park, one of dozens of homeless people who have started dining for free at the “Robin Hood” restaurant that opened this week.
The project is the brainchild of the “Messengers of Peace” association, led by Angel Garcia, a 79-year-old rebel priest with a thick head of white hair and kindly smile known for his charity work.
By day, the restaurant charges regular customers for breakfast and lunch with an 11-euro ($11.7) menu, subsidising the same meal for the homeless at night, even if the association will likely have to step in with some funds.
Garcia has plans for three more such eateries in Madrid and other parts of Spain, where one in five people live close to the poverty line after a devastating economic crisis.
“It’s really good,” says Silva as he cuts up his meatballs, sporting a “GAP” sweatshirt he got as a handout — a welcome improvement, he adds, from the cold sandwich he usually has for dinner at the nearby Catholic church of Father Angel, as Garcia is known.
Once finished, he walks out of the warm eatery with its interior brick wall and chandeliers, back into the December cold.
As he leaves, others enter the 50-seat restaurant, some parking their trolleys in front of the bar at the entrance before sitting at tables with white tablecloths and red napkins.
“It’s about giving more dignity to the people who need it,” Garcia tells AFP days before the restaurant opening, sitting dressed in a smart suit in his San Anton Church in Chueca, the capital’s district.
Next to him, homeless or cash-strapped men and women drink hot coffee and munch on pastries for breakfast.
They will likely come back later, when the church serves sandwiches, soup and fruit for some 200 people every evening.
“Up until now, people would queue in the street to get dinner, in the cold and rain,” says Garcia.
“So we asked ourselves why we couldn’t do this in a restaurant.” And “Robin Hood” was born.
An alternative church
The restaurant runs two services for the homeless, enough for 100 diners who come from the crowd that normally gets food at the church.
The church itself has become an institution since Garcia took over last year with the firm belief it should be open to anyone, from any religion.
Not only does it serve the homeless food on pews covered with white cloths, but it also broadcasts the Pope’s appearances on television screens, as well as football matches.
“More than 1,000 people come through every day,” he says.