The unkempt, scantily dressed man rummaging through the garbage bins on Broad Street for his daily meal hardly gets our attention. To most who pass him by, he’s just a vagrant. To young Kemar Saffrey, he’s a brother with possibilities.
Saffrey, the president of the Barbados Vagrant And Homeless Society in Tudor Street, The City, knows what it is to be hungry, for he has gone without the comforts of a warm bed and a wallet of cash.
“Thank God for your past. It helps to shape the future,” he says chuckling, as he sits to share his story.
A Jamaican by birth, Saffrey relocated to Barbados with his mother and three siblings at the age of eight. Life, he says, was filled with rough patches.
“Mum had four of us. She was a single parent, and it was very hard for her to really support all of us on her own. Going to school, we had $4 or $6 a day; $2 of that was bus fare . . . .
“Many times I didn’t know what to eat . . . . You were not always sleeping in a house; you were not always sleeping in a bed at a young age.”
Saffrey, who described himself as “a little gangster boy”, found himself questioning “why?” as he ventured out on his own and made some wrong turns.
“I was alcohol-poisoned at 20, 21. I left home; lived with a girlfriend.
“I used to smoke weed; I used to sell drugs.”
Still, he knew this was not the life he wanted. His turning point came after he had attended a religious crusade in The City –– and he became a Christian.
“Andrea Harris –– she had a crusade in town and it was a lovely crusade. She made an altar call. I was nudging my friend, ‘Let we go down; let us make this happen’, because I wanted somebody to go down with me.
“So I went and accepted Christ, and from there it was like, I would say, having the gate open.”
The 27-year-old recalled hearing a voice, as he embarked on his new life then, instructing him to “go and deal with the homeless”.
“That was the fourth of October, 2009. And then by the 19th of October I had the organization registered.”
That organization is now the Barbados Homeless And Vagrant Society, which was officially launched on February 20, 2010, to reintegrate vagrants and homeless people into society.
Long before the call, it was always Saffrey’s dream to reach out to the less fortunate, but his early efforts did not
“I used to work at Opa Restaurant. I lived in Regency Park; so I used to walk from Regency Park to Hastings night and day and I would bum a lift, and I would tell people about this organization that I would like to start . . . . “I remember a lawyer telling me he would definitely help me. He said, ‘I would help you with the constitution’. Two years passed; he didn’t help me.
“Everybody I told, told me forget about the homeless. ‘Dem people ain’t want no help; dem people had their time in life, dem people waste time, dem people worthless . . .’.”
So Saffrey put his dream on the back burner, but was happy to return to the idea; and this time around he was in for a few surprises.
“When I became a Christian on the 4th of October in 2009, the same constitution I wanted the lawyer to write for me, I wrote it in one day. Doors started to open. I said, ‘Lord, You gave me the organization, but I haven’t seen the office’; and then I got a call, ‘Hey, you remember you wanted an office 15 months ago?’.
“It was at the BIDC Centre at that time, and I had wanted it for my kitchen cleaning business, but I went there and I said I am going to use this for the Barbados Vagrant And Homeless Society just to push it off.
“But when I got to the office, I said, ‘Lord, You gave me an office, but You haven’t given me furniture’; and then this lady from Dillon Amber came and look through the office and said, ‘You don’t have any furniture’, and she flooded it with furniture.
“Then some other people like Silver Line came and gave, and then I was able to give away furniture to the other incubators in the office.”
Help continued to pour in. The new organization benefited from a donation of computers from Online Computers, while people volunteered their services.
“I realized that at the time when Kemar wanted to start, it [the Barbados Homeless And Vagrant Society] was nothing . . . . It was because of Christ that his organization was birthed, and because of Him that these doors remain open.”
But it was not all smooth sailing. Saffrey explained that for the first three years it was really a labour of love.
“When we first started, there was no money. Between 2009 and 2011, and even after that, none of us was paid. We only started paying staff in 2013. We took a lot of our life and we became the counsellors –– the mother, the father, the brother, the sister to our clients.”
Saffrey was also adamant there was nothing glamourous about his work.
“There are persons who have broken into this office. There are people who have fought in this office. But you simply have to love it.”
For Saffrey, the Barbados Homeless And Vagrant Society is not merely about providing a plate of food to its clients; it’s about empowering and transforming lives.
“You give them coping skills; you build life skills, and you counsel them and their family.
“Some people don’t want to come off the streets, but they can still get counselling, Bible study every Wednesday. They will get food, clothing, haircuts every Wednesday, maths and English classes; they get recreational tours.”
Now the organization is anxious to give Barbados even more as it prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary of Independence. It’s preparing to role out a new campaign –– Building A Future For The Homeless –– aimed at preventing homelessness.
“There is a building that we pinpointed in Barbados that we want to buy that cost $1.7 million . . . . You would have a female dorm, male dorm, family dorm; you have counselling rooms, training rooms; you would be able to do a much wider scope of work.
“We might be able to save some people from becoming homeless by saying if you want to stay at the organization you could. You would also have programmes –– job attachments and work programmes.”
Saffrey says Barbados has much to celebrate, particularly its people –– who he says have significantly turn around their attitude towards the less fortunate.
“People just call and say, ‘I want to go feed the homeless today. I really feel the tugging on my heart. I like the work that you are doing. I see the change the organization is bringing. How can I be a part of it?’
“Young students from the secondary and the primary levels are giving big. A little boy gave his whole birthday money to the organization. He brought a ton load of food for the homeless; he brought the food and brought it here; and I was like, ‘Wow!’.”
More than anything else, this Bajan Gem, who has no regrets about his decision to be a champion for vagrants and the homeless, wants Barbados to do more to reform its social sector as it moves to another level of development.
“If we don’t look at the heart of the country and reform it, and make sure that the people of this country are taken care of, then we would have problems going forward. We have to take care of one another,” Saffrey asdvises.