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Homeless, mentally ill meet cruelty on our streets

BY ALICIA DUNKLEY Sunday Observer staff reporter dunkleya@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, March 04, 2007    

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It is hard enough to have to wander the streets in search of food and shelter, but for many of the mentally challenged and homeless in Jamaica, poverty and a lack of security are not what they dread. It is the lack of sympathy, the absence of an understanding of their plight and sometimes the sheer cruelty of others that make home under the canopy of the skies an even more fearsome place to be.

One woman who calls herself Jenice Wynter visited the Jamaica Observer several Thursdays ago and spent a good hour chronicling her battle with mental illness, homelessness and sheer dispossession.

According to Wynter, she has been failed by the country's mental health system and let down by her family and the Jamaican citizenry.

She is not mad, she says, and claims that the doctors were wrong in their diagnosis of her mental condition, which was classified as post-partum depression in the first instance and schizophrenia of late.

The young woman, who says she is the mother of a 16-year-old daughter, claims she has been forced to live on the outskirts of society because of her condition.

"I was a mascot in my scheme. Everybody said I was looney," she tells the Sunday Observer.

Wynter, who is adamant that she is not insane, says the stigma associated with institutionalisation only serves to make a rotten situation worse.

"They stereotype people. I would like to know the definition of madness here, people use it so loosely", she complains.

"This whole thing of mental health here it's sick. They do anything to you and it's as if you have no right," Wynter says adding that the fact that she was "poor and a nobody" in the eyes of many, seemingly gave them further impetus to be cruel.

She says it was an encounter in the parking lot of a building in New Kingston recently that spurred her to tell the story many street people have no way of verbalising.

As is the practice of many street persons, when dusk falls it is time to find an area to pass the night, and that night for Wynter was no different from others.

She says she took the advice of two individuals who suggested that she sleep in a certain multi-level car park instead of the bench on which she had settled to pass the night.

Wynter says her sense of security was short-lived when one security guard made it his point of duty to throw her bodily from the building, after inflicting blows on her and showering her with expletives.

"This is how you treat your fellow Jamaicans whether they are mad or not? These people are animals. Granted I was a little dirty, but not because I'm mad but because I didn't have anywhere to shower," she argues.

"I'm human, whether I'm sick here (pointing to her head) how dare you threaten my person? I wasn't a felon or anything," Wynter says.

"I'm here to challenge the cause of people who are mentally challenged. I'm a born Jamaican, I'm not a naturalised citizen and as such I should be protected, respected, cared for, sheltered, I should have full protection by my country and be able to benefit, I am a son of the soil," she adds.

Furthermore, she says, she is worried because in addition to being "out of a job because everybody labelled (her) a basket case" she has to contemplate the future of her daughter whom she says "needs a home and an education".

Inspector of Poor at the Poor Relief Department on Hanover Street in Kingston, Lena Latibeaudiere, tells the Sunday Observer that Wynter's story is the same told by many of the over 100 street people who depend on the department's care.

"People out there abuse them; they stone them and things like that and they killed a number of them the other day," Latibeaudiere says.

She says while the department has done its best to act as a haven from the harsh realities of the streets, it's work could be much more effective if the proper support systems were in place.

"What we need to do in Jamaica is to educate the public, some sort of public education needs to be done," she says. "The people are there and they are human and none of us know what could happen to us tomorrow and we end up on the streets; so if we see them there and we can do anything to help we should, because it could be any of us out there. What the state needs to do is publicly educate the people and let them know that they are there, they are our people and whether they are mentally ill or not they are human and we have to take care of them, we have to do what we have to do," Latibeaudiere points out.

"Most of them are not mad. Some are mentally ill, some are drug addicts, some are deportees, some just fell on hard times because you have people out there that from Hurricane Gilbert (1988) they lost shelter and they just give up and they are out there on the street; but I think proper, structured programmes need to be in place to help them," she adds.

According to the inspector of poor, it would also help if family members refrained from ostracising their mentally ill relatives.

"Most relatives, when they get sick, they don't want them back, even if they go to the hospital and they get treated and they come back round normal they don't want to have them in their home setting. They need to take them back and see to it they take their medication," she says, adding that the department tries to reunite persons with family members who express interest.

In the meantime, between its Hanover Street and George's Lane addresses, the department continues to provide warm meals, shower facilities, a place to bed down for the night and free medical check-ups and medication from visiting doctors for the dependents who range from 30 to 70 years of age.

"Right now, we have more than a hundred," says Latibeaudiere. "We don't turn away anybody, we try to assist them and from time to time you have service clubs, groups and independent persons who make contributions."

Even more heartening is the recent completion of a survey of Jamaica's homeless population by Dr Wendel Abel, noted consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer in the Community Health and Psychiatry Department of the University of the West Indies Mona.

As a result of the survey, which was commissioned by the Planning Institute of Jamaica last year, the team of professionals was able to develop a geomap of the island's homeless population.

The complete findings are to be made public this month.

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