Hungry and hopeless, Francely Ramírez and her husband left their 2-year-old son in the care of friends, gathered their meager belongings, and spent four days walking and hitchhiking from the Venezuelan border to a ramshackle tent city behind a bus station in Colombia’s capital.
The couple, from Trujillo, Venezuela, had heard about the informal camp, called El Bosque, or The Woods, from other travelers. And they were hoping to join the hundreds of Venezuelans living there for a few days so they could eat, sleep and build up the energy for whatever might come next.
Instead, they found that police had barricaded the site and were making plans to evict the residents of the tent city this week.
Inside the encampment, families sat beneath tarps and tents as clothes flapped on lines strung between trees. There were portable toilets and a basketball court.
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But on the wrong side of the barricades, Francely and her husband said they had spent the previous night hiding from the rain beneath a small plastic sheet. The Venezuelan family next to them was traveling with four toddlers, including one sick girl.
“I’m so glad we didn’t bring our baby with us,” Ramirez said, hollow-eyed and weary. “When I look around and see how we’re living, I have no regrets at all.”
Across South America, cities are straining under one of the largest migratory waves in the region’s history. The United Nations says 2.4 million Venezuelans are now living abroad, and 1.6 million have left the country since 2015 — many of them traveling overland through Colombia.
The river of travelers is overwhelming local shelters and humanitarian organizations. And the sight of Venezuelans camped in parks and abandoned lots is increasingly common along the Venezuelan migrant trail, which stretches from Colombia, across Ecuador and into Peru.
Governments in the region — gathered in New York City last week for the United Nations General Assembly — pledged to help the newcomers. The United States has earmarked almost $100 million in aid, and countries like Colombia and Peru have opened their schools and hospitals to undocumented migrants.
But it’s also clear that local governments are struggling to cope with the influx.
In Bogotá — a sprawling metropolis of 8 million — city officials were only alerted about El Bosque when residents began complaining that their neighborhood park had been overtaken by plastic tarps and ragged tents. When officials cordoned off the site last month and took a census, they found 392 men, women and children in the park — almost all of them Venezuelans or Colombians who had been living in Venezuela.
Cristina Vélez, the secretary of social services for Bogotá, said the city is trying to move pregnant women and those with children under 6 to shelters. But the others will have to fend for themselves when they’re evicted this week.
“We don’t have enough room in shelters,” Vélez explained. “So we are looking for alternatives, and those alternatives are to help them build a social network and integrate them into society.”
The city government has been holding job fairs and other events to help the new arrivals find their feet. Over the next few weeks the city will also be setting up migrant service centers — places where Venezuelans can look for jobs and get legal advice. Officials estimate there are about 110,000 Venezuelans in the city who have working and residency permits, and about three times that many who are unregistered. Nationwide, almost 1 million people from Venezuela are thought to have moved to the country in the past few years.
Jose Luis Acosta is one of the lucky ones. After leaving Venezuela two months ago, he successfully registered for a permit that allows him to live and work in Colombia for two years. But he hasn’t been able to find a job. So for now, he lives with about a dozen other Venezuelans on an exposed slab of concrete behind a church, hiding his clothes and blankets in a tree during the day so he can sell store-bought candy on the street.
He and six friends are hoping to raise the $100 they need to rent a small apartment for a month. Despite the hardships, Acosta, who used to be a social worker in Venezuela, said he never considers going home.
In Venezuela “you had to work an entire month just to be able to afford a kilo of rice,” he said. “Here we’re suffering, but I can still make enough money to send some home.”
In smaller towns across Colombia, like Maicao, Cúcuta and Bucaramanga, officials say they’re seeing an increase in homeless Venezuelans. While it’s also a concern in Bogotá, the size of the city has helped mask the phenomenon.
Last November, a census found that of the 9,300 people living on the street in the city, only about 300 were foreigners — mostly Venezuelans. But if El Bosque is any indication, the problem has undoubtedly grown since then.
Unlike the traditional homeless population, Vélez said Venezuelans tend to stay together, finding safety in numbers. And now, the vast majority of those who wound up in Bogotá are gathered near El Bosque and the bus station, where they gather to exchange information and decide if they will try to remain in Colombia or move on.
“The bus terminal has turned into a meeting point,” she said.
Elvis Cuevas, his wife and their two small children came to Colombia about a year ago because he didn’t recognize himself in the mirror. As food became too expensive or too hard to find in Venezuela, he went from weighing 308 pounds to 198 pounds. He sold his 2008 Mitsubishi for the equivalent of $500 and brought his family to Colombia. But soon their money was gone and they were living on the street. Recently, however, he landed a job as the night watchman at a car lot, and he makes enough money to rent an apartment and keep his family clothed and fed.
“Life isn’t easy here,” he said. “But if you need food, you can go out on the street and wash a car or whatever and make enough to buy some food. You can’t do that in Venezuela.”
Ramírez, the woman traveling with her husband but without their son, said Colombia had been both kind and cruel to her. Once a law student, she started selling food and trinkets on the streets of Cúcuta, a Colombian border town, when she initially needed to make money. But as the city began to fill up with desperate Venezuelans, it became harder to make a living. The family began sleeping on the stoop of a kind neighbor, she said.
Eventually, they decided to leave their son in Cúcuta with friends and move away from the border in search of jobs.
As they sat, weary and exhausted outside of El Bosque, Ramírez and her husband dug into a plate of food dropped off by a local businessman — and prayed that it wouldn’t make them sick, as some other donations had.
The couple have heard that jobs are easier to get in in Lima, Peru — about 1,800 miles away. After they finished their meal, they put on their shoes, hoisted their backpacks and started walking in that direction.