Part of the culture for some is the right to nap anywhere

One street dweller has a homemade wagon that doubles as a bed when the time comes for an early evening nap. The writing asserts that it is a four-wheel drive, turbo-powered wagon. A.M. Costa Rica/Andrew Rulseh Kasper

Freedom in Costa Rica also means the right to lay down and take a nap in a doorway or even on a busy street.

There are sections of town where the presumed homeless gather to sleep under cardboard boxes or a soiled blanket.

Tourists frequently ask without an answer why police do not carry off such individuals. They may be alcoholics, drug abusers or persons with mental disabilities. Crack cocaine is rampant in this subculture. There also is guaro. So the individual on the street may simply be someone who was unable to reach home after a boozy night out.

Some of the better-heeled street people can sleep cheap and somewhat secure for the equivalent of $3 or $4. These might be some car guards and the informal taxi attendants. They avoid the dangerous streets. For others, the bedroom can be the sidewalk.

There is no law against public drunkenness in Costa Rica. And drinking in public is no crime either.

“If we arrest them, it is an illegal hold because there is no crime,” said Freddy Guillen, head of Planes and Operaciones for the Fuerza Pública.

The only way an inebriated person can go to jail is for public disruption if there is physical harm, said Guillen. Otherwise, if there is a drunk person or someone drinking in public, they are free to continue.

There are rules that Fuerza Publica officers are supposed to follow when they encounter an inebriated person passed out on the ground, said Guillen. First they make sure the person is alive and check their condition to see if they need medical help. And second, they tell the person they cannot be in the street passed out, so they make sure the person leaves the area.

But some police officers just ignore the situation.

There is no law about open alcoholic containers, but there are laws against drinking and driving as well as the sale of alcoholic beverages.

A new transit law will lower the legal level of blood alcohol level. If the bill passes, the level will decrease from .50 grams per liter of blood, an equivalent to .05 blood alcohol level content, to a .20 grams per liter of blood, an equivalent to .02 blood alcohol content.

According to Guillen, at least in San José the bigger problem is drug abuse compared to alcohol abuse. Humberto Triuveño, Salvation Army program director, said the same thing. But he added that although drug abuse is higher in the country compared to drinking, that alcohol is a serious problem. Not only is there no law against drinking in public, if you want to go buy a bottle of booze you can, he said.

“This is a culture of guaro in Latin America. Drinking is part of our culture,” said Guillen of the distilled sugar cane beverage.

The Salvation Army program is fighting this mentality, said Triuveño. There are two soup kitchens in Costa Rica, one in San José, and the other in Liberia. Both provide free meals as well as help to those that want to kick their addiction he said. They are soup kitchens and serve as a refuge.

There is one catch; Attendance must be voluntary.

“We do not force anyone to commit, and we do not accept anyone who is there against their will,” Triuveño said.

The program is free of charge for those that do not have the financial means. It is also open to everyone, regardless of race, nationality, sex, and age he said. They accept everyone.

“We try to provide the basic needs for them like food,
bathroom, a clean place, and health care. We also have a space where we talk and listen to them,” said Triuveño.

Nevertheless, the subculture continues on the streets. There even are 8 year olds addicted to crack who have left home to spend time on the streets. Or perhaps they never really had a home in the first place. So social organizations try to help these youngsters.

And very few end up on the pavement. Survival on the streets has its own rules, and many of the homeless actually have rough dwellings deep in vacant lots where they live, venturing out only to find food, money and, of course, drugs and or alcohol. Or they might dash down to the local fountain to do laundry and take a bath.

When the fountain in front of the Escuela Metálica can double as a laundromat, there is an added advantage: No water bill. A.M. Costa Rica/Shahrazad Encinias Vela

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