“She calls out to the man on the street – Sir can you help me? … He walks on, doesn’t look back – he pretends he can’t hear her, starts to whistle as he crosses the street, seems embarrassed to be there – Oh, think twice, it’s just another day for you and me in Paradise” – Phil Collins, “Another Day in Paradise,” 1989
It’s a common encounter all over the world that is becoming even more prevalent in Barbados as perhaps the price of progress: people of all ages, some dishevelled, other deceptively well-attired – asking for a dollar to buy a meal or to help gather enough change to help themselves.
We often refer to them as “paros” – drugs addicts who may be under the influence of mind-altering substances or seeking their next high. Many of them have no roof over their heads, either by choice or because their relatives put them out when their addictions became too difficult to handle. They often have to rely on the goodwill of passers-by, charities and churches for their daily meals.
Often our response to the homeless is like the depiction in the Phil Collins’ song; we ignore them or issue a terse denial, occasionally in a very harsh tone or riddled with expletives, and continue on our merry way, oblivious to their plight.
Unfortunately, some have gone to a dangerous and potentially deadly extreme in showing contempt for the homeless, as witnessed just over a week ago when two teenage boys were brought before the courts for beating and stoning homeless people in the City of Bridgetown.
Their rationale? “We were on the bridge and we thought it would be fun to ‘run the prickles’,” one of the young men told the court. So they gathered some rocks and started stoning the homeless people along Broad Street on a Saturday afternoon when they could have found something better to do with their time.
Chief Magistrate Christopher Birch severely reprimanded them, letting them know of the depravity of their actions. He said: “These people don’t have the privileges that you have and you are not making it any better for them. The only difference between you and them is that people still care enough about you to put a roof over your heads, clothes on your backs and food in your stomachs.”
Before sentencing one of the boys to 240 hours of community service, which involves giving his time at a facility catering to the homeless, Birch reminded them both: “You are all one bit of drug addiction, one bit of mental illness, one bit of hard luck away from being with them.”
Exploitation and abuse of the homeless is nothing new, as head of the Barbados Vagrants and Homeless Society (BVHS), Kemar Saffrey, has pointed out. His organisation has received numerous complaints from clients who had been abused in different ways while on the streets, including one who had been beaten with a piece of wood.
Saffrey added that in many instances, the homeless people did not report what happened to them to the police for fear they would not be taken seriously, but the society is now urging its clients to file complaints because it would give them the necessary legal support.
Barbados has few dedicated places where homeless people can go for help, including the Salvation Army’s Reed Street hostel and the state’s Clyde Gollop Shelter for Homeless Men. The BVHS is planning to open an 80-bed shelter later this year for homeless men, women and children.
Saffrey said: “The children would be in a protected environment, and it would provide them with a ‘hygiene hub’ where they can change their clothes, take a bath, etcetera, and they can also use that address for their mail. The shelter is the key to bringing people off the streets and into a safe and secure environment, and keeping them in programmes that will eventually see them going back into mainstream society.”
Saffrey’s statement begs another question. What are we Barbadians really doing to address the plight of the homeless and to get them back on their feet? Contrary to popular belief, homeless people are not overwhelmingly drug-addicted or mentally ill; there are many families, children, even ordinary people facing extraordinarily hard times. There have been many street characters determined to continue wandering for what seems to be decades, but there are always new faces among them who we may be able to save.
How do we go about saving them? American blogger Adora Myers suggests there are several steps we can take, either as individuals or as corporate bodies, government agencies, non-governmental organisations, churches and other charities.
First, those who are fit enough need to find a permanent job that provides them with full benefits and can cover their cost of living. This is especially important for those who have young children. Next, is long-term shelter, but they should not be exploited under these circumstances; that is, do not put them to live in substandard conditions like a backyard shed, or abuse them sexually or otherwise for the rent money.
Since many of them have come into that predicament owing to deeply rooted psychological issues, they also need someone they can talk to who will keep their business confidential, because “sometimes a person just needs to talk through the fear and anger enough to see the next best step”, Myers says.
But we should turn the question of what to do with the homeless on ourselves, for no one is guaranteed permanent shelter for life, except prisoners. How would we feel if people treated us with such disdain or abused us physically or sexually “just for the fun of it” because of crippling substance abuse or financial issue that led us to a life on the street?
It’s time to consider the Golden Rule in an abased era: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. We must show a bit more compassion to the less fortunate among us.
And we must do so with gladness and singleness of heart.
For there are many fellow citizens – men, women and children – who find life a desolate, dissolute and destitute road. Even in Paradise.