Sat | Nov 18, 2017

Gordon Robinson | Home sweet home?

Published:Sunday | October 29, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Jermaine Barnaby/Freelance Photographer A homeless sleeps on the sidewalk along Port Royal Street in Kingston on Wednesday, December 28, 2016. In all the perennial plans for economic growth and social welfare, the homeless have been left behind, writes Gordon Robinson.

Regular readers recall that I recently spent time in MoBay because The Old Ball and Chain's 'baby' required surgery.

As I wrote then, although we were booked in the fabulous Half Moon Hotel, Old BC insisted that we live at the hospital, where she could best supervise and direct the surgeons. Remember that I complained bitterly about having bun, cheese, and Coca-Cola for breakfast from a ground-floor vendor?

As I left the service counter, I was approached by a man who asked for "a bite". I abruptly denied his request. Although he wasn't violent, he didn't accept my denial gracefully, muttering unprintables under his breath while sidling away. Once at a safe distance, he glowered at me while I ate, making the meal not only unsatisfactory, but uncomfortable.

I retreated to the surgical floor to find that Old BC had somehow persuaded hospital staff to allow her into the staff-only section (no doubt, she was in the operating theatre distributing instructions), leaving me alone in the waiting area. Lo and behold, the same man confronted me. Wow, I thought, I'm a real celebrity with my own personal stalker!

He told me his life story in perfect English (American accent). He declared that he was HIV-positive and lamented his view that persons with HIV/AIDS had no human rights in Jamaica. He said he was born in Trelawny, was Merlene Ottey's cousin, migrated to the USA as a youth, and served many years in the Marines. He couldn't understand how he, a former Marine, could be deported to Jamaica, a place he knew not and where nobody knew him, simply because, as he said, "I murdered my wife and sister."

I listened keenly, more fascinated by the man's complexity than uneasy at his attentions. He considered that he'd done the world a favour by removing his wife and sister and was upset that the hospital wouldn't send him home simply because he was HIV-positive. He said he came to this floor because someone in the canteen promised him food then drifted off to collect on the promise.

It was obvious to me that this man was mentally challenged and lived at the hospital. I had one previous experience of this hospital-resident situation, but due to extreme poverty not being half-baked. About 25 years ago, I learned of a JPS subcontractor, paralysed after falling from a tree, becoming so destitute he lived permanently at Port Maria Hospital.

So this got me thinking about the complex issue of homelessness in Jamaica. It's a real problem that now concentrates Old BC's mind considerably since she discovered a homeless man living outside our gated community. She insisted on setting the tone for this week's column:

Old BC: "Would somebody suggest to Old Grey Balls he try writing about something other than sexuality once in a while? There are more important issues. What about the homeless?

What causes homeless/joblessness? Is it lack of education, training; opportunity; drugs; abandonment; mental illness?

They sleep on sidewalks; at bus stops. Is there no agency mandated to keep them out of harm's way or from being public nuisances? Remember the old woman going to cash her pension cheque who was murdered by one such person?

 

BASIC NECESSITIES

 

What crimes do they perpetrate to get food/basic necessities? Theft? Trespass? Violence? I remember when I attended Wolmer's [GR: circa 1895], a homeless man often occupied the Marescaux Road bridge that connected lower and upper schools. Audrey Pinto wouldn't allow students to use the bridge while he was there. Some authority was called to remove him; students were forced to stop traffic (under a teacher's supervision) in order to cross the road.

Public-health issues: Are they burdens on health systems? Are they costing taxpayers unnecessarily because of unhealthy lifestyles? Remember the man at Cornwall Regional waiting area (surgery) when Nick had his surgery?

[GR: Oh, yes, I do!]

Surely, it's not only better for the human being to be cared for by the State BEFORE becoming homeless, it must be cheaper than dealing with the consequences of homelessness? It's a multifaceted problem that should be dealt with at the stage of core issues. Surely, Old GB can expand on these issues? Surely, there's some government minister who has this portfolio?"

With apologies to alternative rocker Ralph McTell:

Have you seen the old man

in the closed-down market

kicking up the paper,

with his worn out shoes?

In his eyes you see no pride;

hand held loosely at his side;

yesterday's paper telling yesterday's news

Chorus:

So how can you tell me you're lonely,

and say for you that the sun don't shine?

Let me take you by the hand

and lead you through the streets of Kingston

I'll show you something

to make you change your mind

Governments have promised comprehensive policies on homelessness since July 15, 1999, when several were gathered up from MoBay's streets and dumped at St Elizabeth's red mud lakes (the 'Street People Scandal').

Yes, Old BC, there's a minister. It's the local government minister. The Poor Relief Department (PRD) and its Board of Supervision (BOS) are the agencies tasked to handle the problem. But, guess what? The usual shuffling of budgetary cards to hide reality resulted in these agencies being woefully underfunded and under-resourced, thus exacerbating a problem that should've been solved in 1989. Instead, we had a general election party.

Have you seen the old girl

who walks the streets of Kingston

dirt in her hair and her clothes in rags?

She's no time for talking.

She just keeps right on walking

carrying her home in two carrier bags

(Chorus)

Homelessness as we know it today began in Hurricane Gilbert's aftermath. Gilbert rendered many Jamaicans temporarily homeless. Only some were able to rebuild. Government, with bigger problems (like how best to distribute zinc to party activists), failed to intervene on anything remotely resembling a timely basis.

BOS considers people 'homeless' if living in places not meant for human habitation e.g., cars, parks, sidewalks, abandoned buildings; emergency shelters; transitional/supportive homes for homeless persons; or are in any of those places for 30 consecutive days.

You're also deemed homeless if living in a hospital or other institution; having been evicted within a week from your residence; or having been discharged within a week from an institution (e.g., mental-health or substance-abuse treatment facility or prison).

And have you seen the old man

outside the seaman's mission

memory fading with

the medal ribbons that he wears?

In our October city,

the rain cries a little pity

for one more forgotten hero

and a world that doesn't care

(Chorus)

I've taken minor liberties with the lyrics of Streets of London, written-recorded by Ralph McTell (1969) and inspired by his experiences busking (look it up) and hitch-hiking in Europe, especially Paris. The song contrasts people's 'problems' with those of the homeless, lonely, elderly, ignored, and forgotten.

Between 2012 and 2015, the number of officially homeless persons jumped 26 per cent from 1,057 to 1,418, but only 181 were on the poor relief roll. Eighty-three per cent of homeless persons were male. The majority of the homeless 'live' in the KSAMC; then St James, with Clarendon third. The year 2017 finds more than 2,000 homeless persons in Jamaica, double the number five years ago. Prosperity? Progress?

We can no longer ignore homelessness. Government must lead, but private-sector involvement is essential and self-protective. Here are some decisions to be taken NOW:

- STOP BUILDING HOMELESS SHELTERS. We build more hotel rooms to attract more tourists, but we never think that more homeless shelters only attract more homelessness. We need occupational shelters where homeless persons get temporary refuge AND skills training so that one day, they may re-enter society.

- Get the facts. How many homeless are there? What are the varied causes and rehabilitation needs?

- Audit/upgrade PRD and BOS to handle the anticipated explosion of homelessness.

- Develop the same urgency that drives Government's private-/public-sector partnerships in toll roads with regard to homelessness.

Old BC: As usual, Old GB has it assy-versy. I think there should be more focus on preventing homelessness than curing it. Are there systems for actually going out, picking up the homeless, and placing them where they belong? Homeless people aren't voluntarily walking into these shelters.

Government agencies should be equipped to assist persons who, for example, are about to lose their homes (whether by bank auction, or tax debt, or whatever) to access government housing built by the NHT for that purpose. These people (or family members) probably made significant NHT contributions during their working lives. If we don't address the issue of the currently homeless simultaneously with the prevention of future homelessness, we're in trouble.

Peace and love.

P.s. Last week, I criticised Shane Alexis for announcing his name as 'Doctor' Shane Alexis. After deadline, Old BC showed me a JLP advertisement with Norman Dunn doing the same. Politricks! No matter how low one goes, the other can correspond.

- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.