Joy Crooks, A woman on a mission
Joy Crooks is passionate about two things. She wants to rid the streets of Montego Bay of homeless persons, and she yearns for a Jamaican society where people are more compassionate to the plight of the homeless.
After 30 years in England, she returned to Jamaica in 1979 to absorb the island culture her parents never stopped talking about, and of which she only got a taste as a child.
Not in her wildest dreams would she have imagined that her home-coming mission would involve much more than a cultural connection.
As nurse/administrator for CUMI (Committee for the Upliftment of the Mentally Ill), she is lead advocate for those without a voice, and caregiver to those who have been deprived of care and protection.
Her wards are the street people, the homeless souls in Montego Bay who walk the alleys daily, foraging for food and other basic necessities.
“Many suffer all forms of mental illnesses that prevent them from carrying out the essential aspects of daily life such as self-care, household management and interpersonal relationships,” the CUMI head told All Woman.
Ironically, it was the reality of similarly dispossessed persons in England that prompted Joy to enter the field of psychiatric nursing. She gained very early experiences working as a volunteer first-aider with the St John’s Ambulance Brigade and Red Cross.
“I remember going out with the team rendering first-aid to the needy and although it was more a hobby then, I decided that this was the profession I wanted,” Joy said.
Having gone through the formal education system, she was enrolled in the Nottingham University City Hospital’s School of Nursing where she received general nursing training.
She later pursued post-graduate studies in community psychiatric nursing.
After a brief stint in the hospital, she decided that her mission to help the needy would be best achieved on the streets. And so she moved from the corridors of the hospital to the clusters of the working poor, administering to the needs of persons living in the big city housing schemes in London. She worked a lot in Derby which was her hometown.
While in training, she had the opportunity to work closely with her colleagues in treating persons with mental disorders, and this more than adequately prepared her to meet the challenges she encountered within the communities where she worked.
“Here, the focus was on treatment and rehabilitation, and I did a lot of liaison work, monitoring the well-being of persons, ensuring that they are well-cared for, and helping them to access state benefits,” Joy said of those years of very hard work.
As a community nurse, Joy had the opportunity to work with many West Indians migrants. This experience sparked her imagination and strengthened her earlier desire to live and work in Jamaica.
“I came in contact with quite a few Jamaicans, both in the psychiatric hospital and in the communities. Many of them had difficulties adjusting to life in England, some developed personality disorders ranging from depression to schizophrenia.
“Persons of mixed ethnicity who are half-Jamaican and half-English had the most difficult time adjusting, and so were more prone to developing personality disorders as they tried to fit in. Then there were the older Jamaicans who had problems adjusting to a lifestyle that they were not accustomed to.
Jamaicans tend to express themselves in ways that are much different from the English, and this created problems of integration. I worked a lot in these situations,” Joy shared.
While vacationing in Jamaica with her husband who also worked in England for over 30 years, Joy got a true taste of what Jamaica had to offer, and she loved it. She decided to come home. Montego Bay was her immediate choice as she was born here, and had family roots which ran deep.
“I did not want to wait until I was too old to make a contribution to Jamaica. My father desperately wanted to come home before he passed away, but did not make it, and I did not want this to happen to me. In addition, my two younger children did not mind attending school here, and so the decision was final, I would make Jamaica home,” Joy said with only a hint of regret.
In November 1989, she made the journey, and quickly immersed herself in the social life of the island’s tourist capital. “The Montego Bay seaside got to me,” she quipped.
Joy got her first bitter taste of the ugly side of Jamaica when she tried to re-roof her grandmother’s house which was lost to Hurricane Gilbert.
“I found out how hard it was to get things done in Jamaica, how difficult and unfriendly the system was,” she said.
Not totally deterred by the harsh realities of life around her, Joy took a job with the HEART Trust as counsellor to young trainees.While on this job, she was invited to a meeting with a group of concerned citizens who wanted to start an advocacy group for the Montego Bay street people.
Joy was immediately interested, and became a part of the group. She helped to engineer a shelter and a set of feeding stations for those who just wanted to be fed. After a year of voluntary service to CUMI, she gave up her job with HEART, and started working full time with the street people committee.
Her job at CUMI involves running a full-time shelter, a night shelter and feeding stations. A strong emphasis is placed on rehabilitation, that is, getting persons well and functional.
“This is often very difficult as some persons do not have the necessary support of family and a community that will nurture them, so we have to do everything for them,” Joy said.
She has on her registry 70 females and 169 men. This gender imbalance, she says, is the result of a number of factors.
“It is much easier to resettle females than males. When a woman reaches the streets, it is because the caring unit has given up on her. She is usually not getting financial or family support, and she just cannot cope anymore. Women also reach out for help more quickly than men.
“Support units for men in the society are not as developed as those in place for women, and men generally do not look after themselves as well as females do. The unskilled male is most vulnerable, and he drops out of society a lot earlier. Substance abuse which is a contributory factor to mental illnesses is also higher among men,” the CUMI administrator shared.
Despite these problems, Joy finds her work very fulfilling and rewarding. Through CUMI, she has helped many persons. Over 280 persons have been successfully rehabilitated and gone back into society, where they are able to lead normal lives.
“We have kept the re-admission rate for the hospital down and I have people who no longer come in for special treatment,” she added.
Sadly though, two of the mentally ill persons under CUMI’s care were among those forcibly removed from Montego Bay last year. Both had refused to stay at the shelter that night.
Joy’s greatest challenge right now is having to work within a society that does not provide adequate facilities for the treatment of the mentally-ill and the homeless.
“There are not enough social workers, there is limited psychiatric service and no long-term programme for those who are chronically ill,” Joy said hoping that the recent spotlight on the homeless will stir the conscience of those empowered to make changes.
In the meantime, she continues to work, and hopes to see the day when the average Jamaican is able to live a good life.
“I love Jamaica so much, and I am willing to stay and do everything I can to see the day when our people are not held in contempt, where everybody is treated equally, whether they are rich or poor,” she said.