News

Homeless brave Sandy on the streets

BY DONNA HUSSEY-WHYTE Observer staff reporter husseyd@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, October 29, 2012    

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WHILE angry winds from Hurricane Sandy lashed the nation last Wednesday, drenching everything in its path, a number of homeless and mentally-challenged persons in downtown Kingston suffered through the onslaught on the streets, exposed to the elements.

Many were forced to seek refuge in abandoned buildings, and the the nearby Coronation Market, trying desperately to shield themselves with pieces of cardboard.

For 30-year-old Keisha, the wet concrete in front of Khemlani Mart on King Street was where she rode out

the hurricane.

She scratched her sore-riddled body as she described for the Jamaica Observer the fear she felt as she curled up on the cold concrete floor of the piazza and watched as Sandy's strong winds and heavy rains made a mockery of trees, buildings and light posts.

"I didn't have any shelter to stay during the hurricane. I was afraid, yes, but nuh better nuh deh," she said.

Keisha has been living with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) that causes AIDS for the past six years. She has made the streets her home after her brother ran her out of their home in Payne Land when he found out about her disease. She is the mother of two girls, 13 and 15; the younger daughter is in state care after being taken away six years ago when Keisha became ill. Her older child lives with relatives in Portmore.

Like many nights before Sandy made land, Keisha

was hungry.

"Nuff time mi bawl," she said. "I would eat a food right now."

She said since the hurricane no one has come by to hand -out food to those living on the streets.

"I don't know what happen but I don't see no one come out here," she said, scratching her left leg, then her arm as she sat outside the General Post Office on King Street.

Thirty-nine-year-old Bridgette James was another homeless woman who weathered the storm on the streets. James, too, is HIV positive and said she was deported from New York in 1996 and has been living on the streets of Kingston since.

She said she had lived through other hurricanes in her 16 years on the streets and was, therefore, unafraid. She too said she spent the night hungry while trying to keep herself warm and dry when she found that the usual shelters were flooded with refugees.

"I went to Father Ho Lung place (Food for the Poor) but it did full," she said simply.

She said many times when she cannot find money she sells her body to buy food.

James pulled out a string of condoms which she said she received from the clinic. She contracted the virus in 2001.

"Now, mi always use condom. Sometimes all mi want is a little money to buy a cup of tea. Sometimes mi hungry and a cup of tea would help. I know I can't work for society again, so mi sell my body to survive."

Seventy-two year old Selvin Duncan curled up next door to the Ward Theatre on a piece of cardboard as Sandy passed through Kingston. He said he has been living on the streets for so long that he could not recall exactly when he ended up there.

"I didn't get any hurt from the hurricane," he said. "I have spent most of the hurricanes that come right here on the streets and they don't trouble me," he said.

Duncan said he used to wash car windows to make a living and once lived on Oxford Street in downtown Kingston.

Willel Thomas, 75, was dozing in a handcart inside the Coronation Market. She said she lost her Beeston Street home in a fire a month ago and has been sleeping in the handcart ever since. While she received a mattress from former mayor, desmond McKenzie, she said she has nowhere to put it and had to leave it in the mayor's office.

When contacted, administrators of some homeless shelters in downtown Kingston said a number of these street persons refused to come into the facilities and it was a struggle to get them off the streets ahead of the storm.

"We eventually got 29 of them into the shelter," Selvern Laing, divisional disaster coordinator at the Salvation Army told the Observer Friday. "There were much more than that, but some of them did not want to come into the shelter. Some came and left the following morning because they don't want to remain. We fed them and we clothed them and we gave them somewhere comfortable to sleep for the night."

Laing theorised that they likely left because they do not have the type of independence at the shelter as they do on

the streets.

"When they are in the shelter they are governed, and they don't feel that sense of freedom when they are in the shelter. And so, most of them prefer to stay outside. That is what we have found over the years."

Elaine Walker, government inspector of the poor for Kingston and St Andrew, who is stationed at the Poor Relief Department on Hanover Street, said the centre dispatched a vehicle to round up the homeless, many opted not to leave the streets.

"Sandy came down suddenly on us, but we were there ready to do what we had to do," Walker said. "We got a vehicle from KSAC and we were able to go downtown and get some people up to the shelter."

She said they were able to take in 20 persons at that location, while others were taken to the drop-in centre at Bellview Two, some to the Salvation Army, and others to the Good Samaritan Inn. Some elderly persons were also taken to the Golden Age Home on St Joseph's Avenue.

A one-legged man was picked up outside the St William Grant Park during the hurricane, after his plight was highlighted on local television, and taken to the Golden Age Home. He has been there since.

"The others who came in, they just had breakfast and then they left," Walker explained. "Because you know they don't really want to stay."

"We have at least 70 persons whom we house, but you have persons who just come in for breakfast — and this could be about 100 — they just come in, have a change of clothes, have breakfast and then go."

She said if there is a health fair they would also come in, see the doctor and go back on the streets.

"They are just street persons, they don't want to be housed at all," Walker said. "And you have a lot of them who have HIV. Some of them go to the Comprehensive Health Clinic to get their shots and some of them have their medication on them."

Barrington Hall is one of those who weathered the category one hurricane at the Poor Relief centre. However, as soon as the hurricane cleared on Thursday, he was back on King Street trying to 'hustle'. This, for him, is really begging. He was clean and clad in a pair of blue jeans and a blue striped shirt. He admitted he had

just received the clothing from the centre.

"I spent the time up there," he said. "We get food and that is where I get these clothes."

As he lifted his shirt to exposed the badly scarred skin on his stomach and side, Hall said he had been sleeping outside the Ward Theatre last year when he woke up to find himself in flames.

"I have a hard task on the street," he said. "I am looking work, but can't find none."

But he said, thanks to the Poor Relief Centre, he was not affected by the hurricane.

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