Sat | Sep 23, 2017

An army of eight... Fixing the frail and protecting the homeless

Published:Sunday | January 31, 2016 | 1:00 AMNadine Wilson-Harris
A resident of the Open Arms Drop-In Centre cooking up a storm on the property.
Two residents of the Open Arms Drop-In Centre toil in the field on the east Kingston-based property.
Inmates inside the computer lab at the Open Arms Drop-In Centre in east Kingston.
Inmates inside the computer lab at the Open Arms Drop-In Centre in east Kingston.
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At the helm of a nine-year-old drop-in centre for deportees, mentally ill and physically challenged men is retired social worker Yvonne Grant, who runs tight and extra-long shifts. Supported by a staff of seven, she keeps her charges in line while preparing them for the outside world.

"They are expected to be up by five o'clock and they will take care of personal hygiene, and if they are not capable, then they will be assisted, and then they will have to assist in keeping the place clean and tidying up the place and getting themselves ready for breakfast," said Grant.

The men are placed in crews and are given designated duties to ensure that the centre is fully operational. Several of them are former patients of the Bellevue Hospital. They made the transition to the facility when the mental health hospital started to decrease its inpatient population. Open Arms Drop-in Centre off Windward Road in east Kingston houses about 80 homeless men and is often described as a haven for the homeless and the mentally ill.

Grant, who was trained as a mental health, community development and social work specialist in England, spent the last 40 years as a mental health practitioner. Upon returning to Jamaica, she worked as a university lecturer before taking a break from the classroom to work with the very people that were often the focus of her lessons.

In addition to daily living skills, the men under her care are given proficiency training to prepare them for the working world. They also have mathematics and English classes in addition to scheduled recreational activities.

"People are slotted in. Some persons are at the gate and are taught security duties, some are working on the farm, some are doing landscaping, and you see persons in the skills training room and they might be doing some sewing and some assist in the kitchen," said Grant, as she added that the men are also scheduled for laundry duties.

But at least one man, who was recently discharged from the facility, feels there are serious inadequacies that need to be addressed, and asked our news team to pay the centre an unannounced visit.

UNANNOUNCED VISIT

On our 'unannounced' arrival, our news team was greeted by perfectly landscaped grounds, neatly folded laundry, a display of cushions and draperies stitched by the men, a well-kept kitchen, dining room and dormitory, as well as a thriving farm.

"Having Ms Grant around us, we have to do it. She is a very strict lady when it comes to tidiness and work. You have to be doing something. You have to sweep out, you have to keep the place clean and tidy," said one of the residents who did not wish to be named.

The residents are given three meals each day, with the meals prepared by designated men who all have up-to-date food handler's permits.

Some of them have also secured HEART Trust/NTA Level two certification in food preparation. When our news team ventured to the back of the kitchen, we were greeted by some of the men who were preparing turkey neck, dumplings and green bananas, which was to be served for lunch.

Earlier on, they were given bagels and turkey slices for breakfast, which Grant had prepared.

The staff at the facility includes a case manager, two psychiatric aides, a secretary and a care team of three. The drop-in centre is a non-governmental organisation and is funded by several governmental and non-governmental organisations.

These include the Local Government Board of Supervision, the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of National Security, the British High Commission, Food For The Poor, the Association of Gospel Rescue Mission, corporate Jamaica, diaspora groups and Friends of the Homeless.

FACILITIES

"We have to just go around and raise the funds before we can employ," said Grant.

The facility also has a classroom, a salon for barbering, a computer centre and a thrift shop. While the men are given food and accommodation at no cost to them, a few that are working, but still living at the shelter, sometimes make contributions.

"If they are working, we do money management with them, and as part of their money management, they can give a donation, if they can afford to, because some can't. It all depends on if they have children and other responsibilities," said Grant.

While the drop-in centre is meant to be a short- to medium-term living facility for the homeless, the reality is that several of the men are unable to move on because of mental and physical challenges.

nadine.wilson@gleanerjm.com