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 move and serve 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 month.
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 and alternative church.
By day, the restaurant charges regular customers for breakfast and lunch with an 11-euro (US$11.7) menu, subsidizing the same meal for the homeless at night.
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.
As Silva 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 said before the restaurant opening, sitting in his San Anton church.
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,” said Garcia. “So we asked ourselves why we couldn’t do this in a restaurant.” And “Robin Hood” was born.
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.
The association, meanwhile, goes far beyond running the church and new restaurant.
Horrified by the treatment of children in orphanages, Garcia founded “Messengers of Peace” in 1962 in his mid-20s, with a view of creating welcoming homes for abandoned kids.
From there, the association grew and started looking after young people with AIDS or addictions, disabled children, women who suffered domestic violence and the elderly.
Funded by a mix of donations, subsidies and income earned from some of its ventures, it also provides humanitarian aid abroad and employs close to 4,000 people, with 4,200 more helping as volunteers.
To read more about Father Angel Garcia and Messengers of Peace, click here.