Erica Virtue, Senior Gleaner Writer
Hundreds of Jamaicans, mostly men in their most productive years, are changing their status to homeless and hopeless.
The official figures say there has been a steady increase in the number of men between 18 and 50 years old living on the streets in town centres across the island while shelters are reporting that these young, strong men are filling their beds.
In 2010, noted psychologist Dr Wendel Abel was estimating that some 650 adults lived on the streets islandwide.
According to Ministry of Local Government figures, up to March last year, just under 1,100 persons were recorded as residents of the streets.
More than half the number of persons living on the streets were in Kingston and St Andrew with several under 40 years old.
"This is the islandwide figure, but a headcount survey is currently ongoing. The last survey was March last year," the local government Ministry told The Sunday Gleaner.
According to the ministry, of the 1,097 persons recorded on the streets last year, more than 50 per cent, 584, were on the streets of the Corporate Area.
Many were found with conditions such as mental illness and physical disability.
However, some persons made the streets their home after they were deported from overseas, some are drug addicts, some are HIV/AIDS positive while the elderly and victims of man-made or natural disasters have also taken refuge on the streets.
Rising homelessness is a global phenomenon, in New York alone, the street-dweller population rose by some 61 per cent over the past five years, and other cities across the United States and the United Kingdom have seen significant increases as well. In the UK, government agencies having been resorting to housing homeless families in bed and breakfasts facilities in order to keep them off the streets.
Mean to the homeless
Yvonne Grant, senior administrator of Jamaica's Open Arms Shelter in Kingston, notes that the streets are mean to the homeless.
The Open Arms Shelter operates a 24-hour medium- to long-term residential rehabilitation facility for males and Grant would love to see the homeless off the streets.
"Oh, God. We just have one (person) that they beat up and bruk up. It's very hard on the streets of Jamaica for people who are not homeless, much less the poor and disadvantaged on the streets. It cannot be easy and we know it's not easy," Grant told The Sunday Gleaner.
Opens Arms is a non-profit facility and operates a short-term residential facility as well as a drop-in centre where the homeless are allowed to have a shower.
"We have a drop-in centre where people can come in during the day, get a bath and get something to eat and we start the process of trying to find help for them if they are ill. But in the evenings, those will have to leave and go back on the streets," explained Grant.
Open Arms has as its mission statement the promise to help eliminate homelessness in Jamaica by caring for persons in a loving atmosphere.
The organisation said it is committed to empowering persons become transformed from a state of homelessness to maximising their potential.
The facility which has a capacity for 100 residents is almost always full with persons undergoing rehabilitation to encourage their re-integration into the society.
Usually, the facility caters to persons between the ages of 18 and 60 years, however, there are currently some 70-year-olds who the facility accepts.
According to Grant, most of those needing help at the shelter are males between the ages of 18 and 50 years with the vast majority being between 30 and 40 years old.
Provisions are also in place to accommodate deportees who are homeless.
"When we get the 18-year-olds coming in, they are (usually) from the children's homes and they are not prepared for life. We have to teach them daily living skills, interactive skills. Some are very angry; we have to teach anger management and education. In many instances, we have to start from scratch," said Grant.
She said the in-house residents include a mature set of persons who were employed but their income is so small that it does not allow them to move out.
Despite challenges of illiteracy among some of the individuals, Open Arms is trying to start an on-site skills training centre, while some residents are taught mathematics and English up to grade- nine level as readiness for the entrance examination to HEART.
Community mental health professionals offer examination at the shelter once per month.
At the Marie Atkins Night Shelter in downtown Kingston, the numbers are almost a mirror image of the Open Arms shelter.
Administrator at the Marie Atkins shelter, Elaine Walker, said the facility has a 70-bed capacity which is almost full.
"The majority of the residential individuals are actually older folks. But we have younger individuals too," Walker told The Sunday Gleaner.
She said a growing number of younger individuals are attending the shelter seeking assistance with others making enquiries. A large percentage of the younger homeless are deportees.