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Dining with the Homeless at Madrid's Robin Hood Social Restaurant

16 December 16 words: David Brown

A Nottingham bloke living in Madrid has discovered a rare gem among the eatery ranks - Robin Hood. That’s right, the Spaniards have opened up a restaurant and social enterprise, where the homeless community can get themselves a decent meal. And it’s all down to one bloke...

photo: Adam Potts

‘We’re all in gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’

The words of Morrissey’s long dead crush, Oscar Wilde, came true this week, as I spent an evening with the homeless, who were waited on attentively at the launch of a new social restaurant. The stars that shone that night were Michelin, as three top Spanish chefs attended the opening of a restaurant called “Robin Hood” to cook for the homeless.

The restaurant is an initiative of padre Angel/father Angel, a Spanish priest who founded the charity Mensajeros de la Paz/ Messengers of Peace in 1962. The charity is active in over fifty countries and works to combat social isolation – be it stamping out homelessness, finding families for children who have lost their parents, or helping the elderly. As a recognition of his work, padre Angel received Spain’s highest award the premio Principe de Asturias/Prince of Asturias prize in 1994 and there is currently a petition to nominate him for the Nobel prize.  

He is not, however, a typical priest. When asked why he called the restaurant Robin Hood, another journalist reported that padre Angel joked: ‘We could of called the restaurant “the brothel” to get people’s attention, but we thought “Robin Hood” was probably more appropriate.’

The main reason for the name Robin Hood is the restaurant’s social business model, which promotes sharing, rather than robbing the rich. At breakfast and lunch, the restaurant sells a fixed price menu for €11 to the general public that includes a starter, main course and dessert. Then the profits from these sales go towards feeding 100 homeless or vulnerably housed people over two shifts in the evening.

The Robin Hood restaurant is the latest in a line of innovative, or downright unusual, events organised by padre Angel. In January, his church organises a pet blessing festival – where pretty much every animal under the sun is brought, sometimes protesting – and scratching in the case of the cats, to be sprinkled with holy water. They also organised a screening of the Champions League final between Real and Athlético Madrid last year and visitors to the church this summer could also watch the Olympics there.

This all happens in the Iglesia de San Anton/church of Saint Anthony (the patron saint of animals), a 24-hour church in the heart of Madrid’s gay area that claims to be open to everyone, believers and non-believers alike. The church feeds 500 people a day, but the limited space made padre Angel realise that “eating standing up or sitting on benches was only a temporary solution.” Robin Hood aims to restore “the dignity of eating” so the homeless, or people on the breadline, “can sit down at a table, with a proper table cloth and on special occasions eat food prepared by the best chefs in Spain.”

Some might see giving non-essential food to the homeless as a luxury. Why give the homeless an evening meal in a restaurant, when many people just have a sandwich or put a frozen pizza in the oven for dinner? I put it to padre Angel that some people might think the financial costs of running a restaurant like Robin Hood might outweigh the importance of creating a sense of community.

‘You can’t spend your whole day looking for a job or just eating,’ says padre Angel. ‘The soul needs nourishment too. The homeless are just like the rest of us. Everyone should have a chance to relax and enjoy themselves after a long day.

‘It’s also important to remember there are different degrees of homelessness. Some people have been long time without a job or a home and others have lost theirs recently or just suddenly become poorer. It’s important that everyone feels they are welcome and that, as Pope Francis says, “we remember we are all one society.”’

This is not just religious sentiment, but a thought echoed by Providence Row, a UK charity that works with homeless and vulnerably housed individuals, to “tackle the root causes of homeless, one of those being social isolation”. Providence Row state that:

‘We believe in a strength-based approach, acknowledging a person’s often traumatic past but also drawing on a person’s skills and interests to bring about change. The ever-increasing gap between the cost of living and living wage alongside the uncertainty of regular income has meant many single adults and families are risk of losing their homes.’

These words were on my mind at the opening of Robin Hood. After the chefs and most of the TV cameras had left, many people invited me to sit down at their tables with them and we began to chat. One table was delighted that I had grown up in Nottingham, and I was able to answer all their questions about Robin Hood. They’d heard of Sherwood Forest, though they joked that there were only probably only two trees left there nowadays. Coming from Madrid, they were also heavily into football and asked what had happened to Nottingham Forest. This was a much more painful question to answer.

The majority of people only wanted to chat, but a few of them also kindly agreed to have their pictures taken for this article. I met Charles who, like Beyoncé, keeps hot sauce on him, to spice up his food. 

I also sat down with Javier, who was probably one of the most entertaining people I’ve ever had dinner with. Javier talked fluently in English about food and music, remembering a time when he had lived in New York City eating slices of pizza and listening to records by Michael Jackson and Dianne Krall. Then he read the fortunes of myself and two other people on his tarot cards and the evening ended like all the best evenings out, with good-natured staff patiently waiting for us to leave.

Javier told me that in Madrid finding food to eat or clothes to wear is not the biggest problem due to food and clothing banks, rather he faces the same problem that all the rest of us face, finding a job. When reflecting on this, it’s notable that for most of us getting a job doesn’t just come from sending off CVs, but from socializing. Certainly, most of the jobs I’ve found during the course of my lifetime have been when a friend has told me about openings somewhere or I’ve gone into a bar or a shop and seen that they are looking for people. Without the opportunity to socialize, everything becomes much more difficult.

Unfortunately, in this decade, the problem of homelessness seems to be getting worse. Zero-hour contracts, a rising cost of living, and political instability mean that the risk of people losing their homes is much greater. In this environment, charities such as Mensajeros de la Paz and Providence Row are more essential than ever, not just for the homeless, but in helping to create a better society for all.

If you’re visiting Madrid, you can find Robin Hood on C/ Eguilaz, 7 close to Bilbao Metro on line 1. Reservations can by made by calling: 914258841.

The Iglesia de San Anton can be found in C/ Hortaleza and the best time to visit is El dia de San Anton/The Day of San Anton on Tuesday 17 January.

Read the full interviews with Javier and Charles on David’s blog


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photo: Adam Potts

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