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From homeless to hopeful

Portland's indigent get a roof over their heads

BY INGRID BROWN Senior staff reporter browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, November 21, 2010    

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Being stoned, stabbed, spat upon and verbally abused used to be what residents of the Portland Rehabilitation Centre faced as they struggled to survive on the streets of Port Antonio, sleeping on piazzas and scrounging for morsels to eat.

Today their tattered rags have been exchanged for clean clothes and instead of hard concrete sidewalks, they now have a warm bed, daily meals and the required medical and psychiatric care.

Drug users, deportees and persons who simply have no homes make up the close to 15 current residents at the centre.

Dr. Paul Rhode, chairman of Portland Rehab Management (PRM) which operates the facility and serves as its volunteer physician said the centre is only able to take care of half of the more than 30 homeless persons in the resort town.

While admitting that only two persons have been fully returned to their families from the programme, Rhode said the main objective is to ensure that the indigent have better nourishment and a clean and safe place to sleep.

"While waiting for the shelter to open, one man's throat was slit and to this day no one knew who did it...so maybe through this centre we have averted injuries and death to so many others," he told the Sunday Observer.

Among the residents at the centre is Sharon, a 36-year-old former University of the West Indies student who became penniless and homeless after being diagnosed with a rare disorder.

The intelligent-sounding young woman, who requested that only her first name be used, said she dropped out of university and lost her job as a pharmacy technician.

"I couldn't work any longer because I was falling unconscious. Three different times someone found me on the road unconscious and I was so badly injured I had to receive stitches," she told the Sunday Observer.

Her mother migrated to the United States leaving her in a rented house but when she could no longer afford the rent, the only option was to sleep on park benches or 'kotch' with friends.

On the day she spoke with the Sunday Observer she was just registering for the programme and was looking forward to a permanent place to call home.

"Here I will be fed and supervised, and we will be able to help each other," she said.

Sharon lamented that with her ony source of finances being what little her mother can occasionally send, she would not be able to survive without the centre's help.

"Being here and not having to pay really helps," she said.

Sharon is optimistic that she will eventually complete her studies as she is now working with a psychiatrist to deal with the emotional trauma of living on the streets.

"I am sure I am not the first person this has happened to and so I am not going to sit and dwell on it," she said.

Another resident at the centre is Adraine Bongiorno, a recovering drug addict who has been living on the streets for more than a decade.

The 44-year-old said she migrated to New York at age five and lived there for more than 30 years.

With tears streaming down her face she told a story of getting addicted to crack and cocaine when a guy put it in her cigarette without her knowledge.

In 1995 when she got into trouble with the law her mother sent her to live with relatives in Fairy Hill, Portland.

But the addict's relationship with her family soured and Bongiorno says she was forced out into the streets to survive on what she could beg.

"I try to pick the safest spot in the town to stay and beg some money for food. People get to know me and sometimes they would help me out," she said with a thick American accent.

Living on the street made her the master of provision; as she often took a bath and washed her clothes in the sea, a short distance from the town centre.

While she managed to survive, Bongiorno faced grave danger including being stabbed once in the spine and pelted with bottles by persons who prey on street people.

But these days she no longer sleeps with one eye open as she has a safe space at the rehabilitation centre.

"I am much safer here and I don't have to worry about anybody troubling me," she said as her face lit up with a smile.

Bongiorno said she endured the last two hurricanes and one tropical storm exposed to the elements.

"When everybody lock down inside me alone curl up on the piazza," she recalled.

But despite the trauma of living on the street and her addiction, Bongiorno said because of the rehabilitation centre she can dare to believe that things will eventually get better.

"Me ah deal wid it, me nah let it mad me and me nah commit suicide because me love myself too much," she said.

She however complained that unlike the United States, Jamaica does not cater enough to its homeless as there are very few places for such persons to get help.

Desmond Afflick has lived at the centre for the last two years following his deportation to Jamaica.

Afflick said he migrated to the US as a child and lived there for more than 30 years but was deported in 1997 after serving time in prison.

"When I got deported and came back to Jamaica I had nowhere to go because I left here as a child and so I was on the street," he said.

"It's rough, I had nowhere to sleep at nights and nowhere to take a shower," said Afflick.

"This place has been keeping me off the streets and so I don't know where I would have been now without (it)," said Afflick who still hopes that someday he will be returned to the US.

Lloyda McIntyre, activity director and client care co-ordinator at the centre explained that it offers both a drop-in and residential programme. Under the day programme, street people can get a meal, shower and change of clothes.

Every day begins with an 8:00 a.m. meeting to identify what is happening with the residents and their plans for the day. Breakfast and daily chores follow.

At midday it is time for a focus group discussion followed by lunch. Residents are given the opportunity to learn numeracy, literacy and computer skills. Leisure time is also structured. When the Sunday Observer visited, a group of the residents were enjoying the day splashing around in the inviting Caribbean sea on one of the regular supervised field trips.

Late afternoons are usually spent watching television on the comfy sofas in the elegantly decorated lounge.

The centre, which sits on prime property overlooking the sea was built ten years ago with tourism funds. But it never became operational until last year, through financial assistance from a group called Jamaica and American Friends of Infirmaries.

According to Rhode, the PRM also had to spend some US$10,000 to relocate a man who had taken up residence on the property after being discharged from the nearby infirmary.

"No one would insist that he go back on treatment and return to the infirmary," Rhode said.

The American doctor and operator of the Great Huts Hotel in the parish, Rhodes found out very early that very few cared about street people and was told that there could never be a homeless programme in Port Antonio.

"One high-ranking official said there is nothing you can do or should do to help those people," he recalled.

The centre operates on a US$40,000 budget yearly with partial financial support coming from the Parish Council, Red Cross and board members.

But Rhode said they are looking for more volunteers, donations and help to build a female dorm to complement the existing male dorm.

Mayor of Port Antonio Floyd Patterson said prior to the centre opening it was hard to get help for the parish's homeless.

He admitted there was trepidation in the wake of the 1999 Montego Bay street people scandal where indigent people in that resort town were rounded up and dumped elsewhere.

"I initially thought I could have moved them to the infirmary because there was nothing in place at the Council to deal with them, but found out it was illegal to move them against their will," he said.

Businesses, he said, would complain that they would urinate and defecate in front of buildings, making life unpleasant for customers.

But Patterson praised the centre for helping to change this.

"Individuals can go up to the rehab and get medication and later when I see them I can talk to them and before no one could speak with them," he said.

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