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Living with a ‘burning’ fear - Campbell Town tenement yards are 'a disaster waiting to happen'

Published:Friday | May 1, 2015 | 12:00 AMRyon Jones
Some of the houses built by Food for the Poor for fire victims on Goodwin Park Road after the 2009 blaze which left 15 families homeless.
Living with a burning fear is what Michelle Gordon and her neighbours do on Liverpool Street face every day as they knwo all their possessions are at risk if there is a fire in any of the houses.
There is almost no space between the board houses on Liverpool Avenue and Goodwin Park Road in central Kingston leaving residents at risk if there is a fire in any of the houses.

Residents of Campbell Town in central Kingston are living in fear as any day their houses could be transformed into a blazing inferno, trapping them inside, resulting in loss of life and destruction of the few possessions they own.

The residents who live on Goodwin Park Road and Liverpool Street exist in typical board structures in touching distance of each other, with mainly illegal electricity connections.

Only six years ago residents of Goodwin Park Road experienced first-hand the disaster that a small fire can cause, when a house in their crowded tenement yard went up in flames one Saturday morning.

When the blaze ended, 15 families were left homeless and one person was dead.

"I was here in 2009 and it affected me very bad, because my sister burned up in the fire," Desiree Dawson told The Sunday Gleaner.

"The fire started in her room, but I had put up a piece of board joining her house to mine to prevent persons from going on the roof, and is so the fire spread and destroyed my house," added Dawson.

The international charity organisation, Food For The Poor, stepped in following the fire and built some 26 small wooden houses for the affected residents on the same property.

But the approximately 100 persons who live on the property remain haunted by the 2009 tragedy and live with a daily fear that there could be a repeat.

"Every now and again I think about what if there is a fire again, because the houses are close and made of board, so it doesn't even have to start from my house to affect me," said Dawson.

"They need to build concrete structures around the houses, so we don't have to worry about fire spreading in the event someone else's house catch fire."

And the possibility of a fire is real, as almost all the houses get electricity from some flimsy wires wrapped with black tape and plastic bags.

"When them a fix the wire them, I tell them to try and fix it good so that it don't have any loose end for the wire them to touch together, because you know say if it gash the fire start from there so," said Odetta Lawes, who admitted that the wiring is not done by professionals.

Sean Martin, officer in charge of the Kingston and St Andrew fire brigade, has identified these housing developments as "a disaster waiting to happen".

"The most ideal thing that the fire department would like really is for there to be adequate spacing between the dwellings to allow the fire not to spread too quickly, but sometimes that is not practical because of what they are trying to address," said Martin.

"Those kinds of dwelling most of the times come without the necessary building permits, but because of the nature of how they are put up, then you find that the local authority might not intervene because they would have understood that it is just to fill a particular need that would have been identified. But I tell you, it is a disaster waiting to happen."


Not the ideal solution


Member of parliament for the area, Ronald Thwaites, agreed that the Food For The Poor houses were not the ideal solution, but argued that it was the best that could have been done at the time.

According to Thwaites, the living conditions of members of his constituency concern him greatly.

"The nation has not been able to address the problem of housing for low-income earners," said Thwaites, who is also the minister of education.

"Remember, you have the problem of unemployment, and the positioning of housing is not the most desirable one, but they were the only relief houses that were available."

Just next door to Goodwin Park is Liverpool Street, where residents say the housing condition is even worse.

They would love to get even of some of the board houses built by Food For The Poor for the residents of Goodwin Park.

There is one bathroom on the property and that serves more than 50 persons, while a hose attached to a fire hydrant is the main source of water. That is also where most persons go to bathe daily.

When our news team visited, a woman was spotted having a bath in clear view of everyone passing by.

"We would like some of the Food For The Poor house them, because the convenience would be much better, you wouldn't maybe have any bridge light or such, because you would have better facilities, so people would be further motivated," said Patrick Beckford, who has lived at the premises for 22 years.

Rita Thorpe, who has been living in the subhuman conditions for more than 40 years, would love it if the National Housing Trust (NHT) would assist them in improving their living condition.

"I would just love for NHT to provide us with low-income houses for us to pay mortgage that we can afford," said Thorpe.