No homeless shelters for humans in Antigua

big issues
File photo of someone sleeping on the street
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By Barbara Arrindell

“When people see dog and cat on the street in Antigua they scrape them up and take them to a shelter. They bathe them and give them food. Even the donkeys that cause car accident that kill off people have a sanctuary. But homeless human beings, not so lucky, and nobody a talk ‘bout um. Only a few people like Mary John trying to help and they can’t help everybody. What supposed to happen to the rest? Especially the ones who sick in they head and can’t really make good decision for themself. Why dog and cat and donkey and turtle get better treatment in Antigua that sick or down on their luck human beings?”

That’s what one listener sent to the Whatsapp chat last Sunday as we discussed what some see as the growing problem of homelessness on the island of Antigua.

According to Mary John, who was one of my guests last Sunday, over the past five years the number of homeless and mentally ill people who are living on the streets has increased. Mary describes it as an epidemic. At one end of town — on the eastern side of the vegetable market and by the fisheries complex — there are at least 29 people to be found on any given night lying on steps, on the sidewalk or fighting for space in abandoned buildings.

Mary who as a result of more than eighteen years of addiction knows first hand the struggles and needs of those who society may have written off and given up on, or who may have given up on themselves, said: “Once I attained sobriety I was determined that I wanted the rest of my life to be used to help restore others. Because I knew that many people thought I was beyond saving, I find myself drawn and moved to people who have been discarded by society and appear to be beyond rescue. I know from my own experience of addiction, the power of having someone determined to fight for my life. With now over 20 years in sobriety, I know what it is like to have the opportunity to live out my purpose. I want many others to have that opportunity as well”

In 2021 it was estimated that there were more than 80 homeless people in Antigua and Barbuda. Mental illness, often an inherited illness, alcohol and drug abuse and the illnesses cause by prolonged substance abuse coupled with poverty and loss of jobs were seen as the main contributing factors.

Mary says that accessing mental heath care and drug addiction care is not easy. Although the island has the good fortune to have a world class drug rehabilitation centre on island that had assisted many people, it only accepts and treats adults. A sick individual must be 18 or older to get in and access treatment. Meanwhile the number of young people abusing drugs and alcohol appears to be on the rise. This means that there are many teens who are already addicts. There is no facility to assist these teenagers.

In 2020, the Minister of Social Transformation acknowledged the severity of the homeless situation and spoke about rehabilitating buildings at the old Holberton Hospital for use as a homeless shelter.

Some have suggested that although the homeless need homes, even simply a place where they can sleep safely at night would be a major improvement.

A mental health care provider suggested that a “6 to 6” shelter would go a long way and would be low cost. The person suggested that mattresses covered in a rubber-like substance that is water resistant could be used without the need for sheets and could simply be wiped clean each day. The shelter would be open from six in the evenings and those using the facility would need to leave by six in the morning.

The person suggested that based on budgetary constraints, a simple cup of porridge could be made available each evening and a cup of tea the following morning as people leave the facility. This according to the mental heath care provider could be enough to give individuals the mental space to see the potential of a better future. If there is access to a shower it means that the physical health of the person and by extension the nation will likely be improved.

Mary is suggesting that local authorities could perhaps seek to forge a partnership with the Eric Clapton Foundation which already has a halfway house and the knowledge, experience and technical expertise required. 

The needs of the homeless are often complicated, but doing nothing to assist in a society that prides itself on religious community should not be an option.

Street Pastors is an organisation that reaches out to people who live on the streets, They are always looking to expand their outreach but need more volunteers. Anyone wishing to be trained for this can contact coordinator Barry Sebastian.  

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