MADRID – Before Madrid’s biggest snowfall in half a century collapsed part of their roof this month, Manuela Reyes Flores and her family were without electricity or running water as winter set in in their impoverished neighborhood on the edge of the Spanish capital.

For her and thousands of other residents of the neighborhood, Cañada Real, it was just another misery when the giant blizzard two weeks ago covered Madrid in a foot and a half of snow. The capital region was paralyzed and on Tuesday Madrid was declared a disaster area.

“We have never had an easy life,” said Ms. Reyes Flores, who settled in Cañada Real two decades ago as part of her large Roma community. She and her family had to light an open fire to keep warm, cook food, and heat water for bathing.

“We had to build our own house and we always did our best to fix things without spending any money,” she said.

“But I can tell you this place has gone from catastrophic to simply uninhabitable,” she added as she placed a bucket under a leak from the hole in her ceiling caused by the weight of the fresh snow.

Cañada Real, home to around 8,000 people, is one of the largest poverty-stricken neighborhoods in Europe. While part of the area is littered with brick houses, at least half of the people there live under corrugated roofs and tarpaulin, which are also used in place of glass windows.

The neighborhood has been a political football for decades, in which several levels of government and different municipalities share responsibility for the large piece of land. Amid the political footprints, around 15 non-governmental organizations have got involved to help the most vulnerable in Cañada Real. The number of Spanish helpers has also increased since the pandemic began as they can no longer work outside of Spain due to travel restrictions.

Olga San Martín, co-founder of Olvidados, a small humanitarian aid organization, visited Bosnia in December to distribute winter clothes in refugee camps.

“I think life in Cañada Real is just as terrible as it is in Bosnia, only that it feels even more shocking and shameful because we have allowed it to happen in the Spanish capital and within the European Union,” she said after a survey in the snowstorm damage.

In 2017, legislators agreed to dismantle part of Cañada Real and move thousands of residents to subsidized housing in the Madrid area. However, only 105 such apartments were made available.

In October, Naturgy, an energy company, cut power to most of Cañada Real, saying residents were using their electricity intensely, unregulated and unsafe, even though the area only had four official customer accounts.

The blackout led to clashes between police and local residents. The clashes deepened when police moved in, arrested a dozen people and destroyed several plots of marijuana.

In December, a United Nations expert group called on the Spanish authorities to restore electricity, particularly to protect the 1,800 or so children in the region.

“You can’t punish an entire population for the crimes of a few,” said Javier Baeza, a priest who regularly visits Cañada Real to help its residents. “The political handling of Cañada Real can only be described as terrible.”

The Madrid City Hall responded to the questions asked by email, calling Cañada Real a challenge rather than a failure. The move plan “received a strong boost in the past year”.

The Cañada Real problem has also been found to go back decades.

“If the solution had been easy, it would have been solved, because all this time there were people among all administrations who were really very concerned about the situation there,” said the city government.

Cañada Real was once a way for farmers to cross Spain in search of fresh grazing land for their sheep. From the 1960s onwards, Madrid’s industrial expansion convinced families to turn the land into vegetable gardens and eventually make a living from it.

Over the years, as property developers took over other impoverished neighborhoods and accelerated evictions elsewhere in Madrid, Cañada Real’s population grew. From the 1990s onwards, numerous migrants came, especially from Morocco and Romania.

A local landmark is a church where drug dealers and users gather and smoke heroin while police officers patrol the area. The police say they only intervene in an emergency, when there is violence or someone is in a critical health situation.

Many residents are eagerly awaiting the keys to the promised subsidized apartments so that they can move on. But some have mixed feelings about leaving, fear of paying rent and potential tensions with new neighbors.

“We all know each other here, but I really don’t think that people who live in another part of Madrid would like to have a gypsy family next door,” said Miguel Maya, who like many others collects and sells junk to the Roma community.

Instead of leaving, some residents want authorities to invest in basic infrastructure and legalize their longstanding presence there.

Carmen Carbonell Escudero, 68, lives in Cañada Real with her husband. Although they don’t have proof of ownership, she said the couple paid € 20,000, about $ 24,300, to buy their abandoned home from its previous resident.

“Of course I knew we were buying something illegal here, but how many people who are a lot richer than me now have a nice house that they never got a proper permit for?” Ms. Carbonell Escudero said. “If you wait long enough in Spain, what was illegal can become legal.”

Eugenio García-Calderón, an engineer who previously supplied solar power to people in the Brazilian Amazon, said he came to Cañada Real after the blackout. The influx of emergency aid is welcome, he said, but “nothing good can happen here until we have a sustainable model that makes people self-sufficient instead of relying on outside help.”

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