Surviving in squalor
Abandoned community centre now housing 30 people in filthy conditions
Tanisha Depass, one of approximately 30 people living in the Back Bush Community Centre, looks out from her makeshift fence and gate which partition her section of the captured building. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)

Approximately 30 adults and children from 12 families — including three generations of one family — have for years made the once-abandoned community centre in Back Bush, located off Mountain View Avenue in eastern St Andrew, their home.

With no running water, a leaky roof, and pools of green, stagnant, mosquito-infested water settling in the foundation of the unfinished segments of the structure, the building is a significant health hazard for its occupants.

Residents not only report outbreaks of viruses and various skin infections, but they are concerned about a dangerous unbarred ledge on the second floor from which they say five children have fallen and sustained injuries ranging from a broken arm to a cracked skull.

When the Jamaica Observer visited the community, formally known as Hampstead Park in the St Andrew Eastern constituency, a stench emanated from the settled water outside and inside the two-storey building.

Mesha Rowe, one of the residents of this derelict Back Bush Community Centre, walks with her twoyear- old son across a ledge on the building from which at least five children have fallen in recent years.

This was mixed with the odour of human waste, caused by the lack of sanitary conveniences in the dilapidated building.

Flies swarmed as the Observer team members moved gingerly to avoid stepping in animal excrement.

There were also piles of garbage strewn around the yard, which included a small fridge and a broken basin. One garbage drum was visible near a rusty car, but there was just a small amount of rubbish in the container.

Inside the mostly unpainted, unrendered, untiled building was dark, with its dingy walls giving off a dank, musty, unpleasant odour.

Some residents have been living in the “captured” space for most of their lives but insisted that while they do not wish to live in this squalor, they have no choice.

A section of the rundown Back Bush Community Centre where approximately 30 people now call home (Photos: Naphtali Junior)

Tanisha Depass, who lives in the crudely converted living space with her three children and two grandchildren, told the Observer that if there was an alternative to the less-than-ideal living condition, she would not have raised her family there over the past 25 years.

The 41-year-old receptionist said she moved into a section of the centre at the recommendation of a friend, after her previous wooden house was destroyed by fire.

She then proceeded to make the structure liveable for her and her children. Her younger son stays with her in his own quarters, her older son is on another section of the ground floor with his daughter and the mother of his child; while her daughter resides on the top floor of the building with her son.

“I lost everything in the fire and I start afresh. I get the structure, and I get a little help. I buy a window and I buy a door and I buy a little tile and I work…I made it into a home,” Depass said as she invited the Observer into her apartment.

Her living quarters at the front of the building is, by far, the most liveable of the areas seen by the Observer as she had enough space to create, with partitions, two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom with a pit toilet. The space was also tiled, tidy and clean.

She said she received a little help from her then Member of Parliament (MP), Jamaica Labour Party’s Dr St Aubyn Bartlett who served the constituency until 2011.

Her main issue with living in the decrepit structure is the lack of proper sanitary facilities as well as the problem of flooding and pooling of water long after it rains.

The muddy entrance to her house, partitioned by a makeshift fence and gate, told the tale of the aftermath of Jamaica’s recent brush with Tropical Storm Ian and the rain that followed in its wake.

“When it rain, you get flood out because you don’t have any soak-away or drain-away. So when it rains, you find the people on the top floor, they flood out for days. Me nuh really have no flooding problem, but if the rain fall the water will come under the door and in here will flood out,” Depass said as she pointed to her room.

Accepting that the unfinished community centre is not suitable to live in without basic amenities, Depass said she “wouldn’t mind if the building get fi fix or lick it dung ’cause it not comfortable”.

Depass may just get her wish as current MP Fayval Williams announced — in her contribution to the state of constituency debate last Wednesday — that she would be seeking to help the families living in the centre to get suitable housing.

“After much perseverance, we will be addressing the plight of 12 families that live in a building that was built to be a community centre but, over the decades, it got converted into living spaces that require a lot of work to make it safe. We did the survey of households and it is going through the process. I was told today [Wednesday] that we received permission to build from two agencies, and now the project is on its way to get other approvals to go to design,” Williams said.

That’s good news for Depass who gushed, “I can’t wait. Mi daydream because by right…on the building is not real comfortable, it’s not convenient because some people on the building don’t have any bathroom…Mi can’t wait, a shoulda tomorrow we a get it. Mi can’t wait fi wi get the little place.”

Her daughter, 22-year-old Mesha Rowe, was, however, sceptical about getting help after living in increasingly worsening conditions from she was about two years old.

“I have to see it to believe it,” declared Rowe, who said she had heard that work was to have started to renovate the building but nothing has been done so far.

“I heard that she [Williams] was going to start it last month [August] and she buy some whole heap a sand, but the people them tief it. When she bring it, by the night, half of it gone,” said an obviously peeved Rowe.

“I hope this story mek things speed up a little bit. It’s soon Christmas and you want fi fix up yuh place, cook yuh dinner — yuh know that nah happen fi we.”

Rowe said she is worried for her two-year old son who has already contracted hand, foot and mouth disease and who could face the same fate, or worse, as the children who have fallen from the upstairs ledge.

She said it is for this reason that she gave up her job at a fast food restaurant to stay with her son because she didn’t have a reliable person to care for her child when she was at work.

Leading the Observer on a tour of the building, Rowe painted a picture of utter deprivation. The top floor has one bathroom which is shared among nearly 15 people.

She pointed to about 12 rooms, with some, including hers, barely holding a bed and dresser.

According to Rowe, the walls on one side of her bedroom and her bed normally get soaked whenever it rains, and her small makeshift kitchen barely houses a two-burner tabletop gas stove atop a crudely made counter.

Another resident, Kiesha Davidson, who is the mother of a one-year-old child, said she has been living at the centre for two and a half years.

The 20-year-old, who is employed as a cashier, said she is not happy with the condition of the building, which is unhealthy for the children.

Davidson said she is hoping for “space fi di baby dem can play, space weh the people dem can dispose of dem garbage properly”.

“I think dem can change the facility, mek the environment get bathroom fi di people dem, mek the people them have better place weh dem can call home, [and] gate off the place so that we can have more privacy,” said Davidson.

Former MP for the constituency, the JLP’s Edmund Bartlett, who represented the area from 1980 to 1993, told the Observer that no one was living in the unfinished building when he had started work on it.

“I left there when we were creating the facilities and then we lost the election [1993] and then… nothing happened there. It’s inner city; you know people don’t make building go to waste, so them end up capture it and take it over…and that was the end of that,” said Bartlett.

“It really was in my mind, a real travesty of development because the building offered a chance for development and enrichment, but it ended up being totally neglected and left to be overrun,” he added.

Bartlett’s brother, St Aubyn, who served the constituency until 2011, claimed that help was given to the residents in whatever ways he could afford.

“When I went there, I actually saw persons occupying parts of it. That is a facility that also had a school, not attached to it, but there was a basic school that was close by,” he told the Observer.

He was, however, quick to point out that when he was MP he built the Hampstead Park community centre which was used for the purposes for which it was intended.

BY ALECIA SMITH Senior staff reporter smitha@jamaicaobserver.com

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