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Female squatters see little way out

Published:Friday | December 14, 2012 | 12:00 AM
A squatter settlement at Rasta City in Free Town, Clarendon. - Photo by Ian Allen/Photographer
Melissa Cohen, a resident of Rasta City squatter settlement, struggles to escape her reality as a squatter. - Photo by Ian Allen/Photographer

Nedburn Thaffe, Gleaner Writer

At age 28 and living on one of the biggest squatter settlements in Clarendon, Melissa Cohen is unable to shed the label of a squatter. It is something she is not proud of but living alone with her 11-year-old son and being unemployed, for now Rasta City is her home sweet home.

With no electricity, at nightfall the highly vegetated community is pitch dark and sleeping becomes an uneasy undertaking because of fear of what could happen in the dark.

She testified that days before The Gleaner visited the community, a stone's throw away from her house, a woman was robbed and her throat slashed after criminals invaded her home in the wee hours of the morning.

Her kerosene lamp provides the only source of lighting for her home, acting as little defence against the darkness.

"I don't feel safe when night comes. If mi even get a little sleep, when me wake up like 12 or 1 o'clock, mi caan go back go sleep. You have boys always watching the area like fi come rape and them stuff deh. Them come and knock me up plenty times because them know is woman alone live here. You always have to be on your guard," she said.

No jobs

Unemployment is a common feature of the different settlements visited with Rasta City not exempt. Selling cigarettes and kerosene seems to be the way of life for some.

For now, the articulate 28-year-old woman depends on her mother, who is living abroad, for her basic survival.

"Today is fair day at school and my son could not go because I just don't have the money. If he should go, I will have to find the money fi him pay go in plus pay for the different rides."

Living without a toilet facility also is a hard decision for Cohen but her financial status has left her with little choice other than to tighten her belt.

"It rough when it comes to these things because I have to have the money to buy the material plus turn around and pay man to do the work. Mi nah work, so it look hard fi take up mi five or me $3,000 and give somebody (to build a toilet), even though mi in need of it.

"Me have a plan; me nuh decide fi siddung here all my life and wait on Government to come help me," she said.

Further up the road in the Common settlement situated near Canaan Heights, 24-year-old Lotaya Gray walked the narrow dirt track with two children trudging behind her. At minutes to 11, the two school-age children had not gone to school as "Daddy nuh have no money," as one of them mentioned.

Left bar job

Unemployed with four children, Gray said she once made her living working in a bar until she decided to leave the job.

"When me work them never waan pay me, so me decide seh me couldn't take it no more."

Unlike Cohen, Gray seems to have accepted her lot in life - "living on Chiney man land until him decide fi run we".

"No job nuh deh, a bathe me a go bathe a go out a road go look two man fi con," she said with her face bearing no sign of emotion.

But squatters like Cohen and Gray may soon have to deal with new laws seeking to restrict them from illegally occupying properties.

Dr Morais Guy, minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Transport, Works and Housing, says the ministry is looking at implementing a modern trespass act, which will address the issue of squatting.

"The former administration had looked at amending portions of it, but the suggestion is being made that we do a complete overhaul because this act is dated from 1851, and it was a response to the abolition of slavery and people moving on to land. So a lot of work has to be done where this is concerned," Dr Guy said.

The minister said the Government has serious concerns about squatting.

Data from the 2011 Population and Housing Census released recently have shown a 44 per cent increase in the number of households in detached units on squatter settlements.

According to the data, in 2001 some 21,798 households were identified as squatting units. The number climbed to 31,439 up to last year when the census was carried out.