Down and out in Jamaica
By Dania Bogle, writing from Kingston
I was there to talk to them about their troubles, but somehow became part of their story.
The three people were sitting underneath the tree in the yard of the Webster Memorial United Church.
When I started to interview them, they started making requests for a small financial contribution, “even $50”, or my help in any way, be it by giving them a job, or a link to one.
The trio was there, as they are every Tuesday and Thursday at lunchtime, to benefit from the free hot meal provided by the church.
It’s a scene repeated in various churchyards all across the island of Jamaica every day of every week.
Living on the streets in paradise
One of the three, Richard, who said he lived on the streets of Cross Roads in Kingston, explained that he went to a different church every day, as they all have different days on which they provide free meals.
It’s often his only meal of the day.
Richard told me he was adopted from a children’s home as a young baby, but was thrown out when his adoptive father passed away.
Now 25, he has been living on the streets since he was 17 years old.
There are many, many more like Richard.
And those who live on the street cannot roam peacefully.
The group Friends of Ocho Rios recently attempted to have 200 street people in the resort town removed from local streets.
Ocho Rios, located on Jamaica’s northern coast, has been a favourite area for visitors even as far back as the 1940s, when British author Ian Fleming wrote his James Bond novels at his nearby home, Goldeneye.
But for tourist and property development managers, homeless people wandering the area have become a problem.
“They are a safety hazard,” a Friends of Ocho Rios group spokesperson, Sandra Grey-Hamilton, said on national television.
Many people had jobs, but lost them in the recession or had to give them up because of various other challenges.
“I usually do selling, but it get bad pon me,” 48-year-old Marie told Caribbean Intelligence©.
“I used to do it, but I stopped because police used to come up and terrorise us with the selling.”
“It’s tough, me a tell you. Rough… rough… rough,” she said, keen to emphasise the difficulties she faces.
Jamaicans generally seem to concur with Marie’s thoughts.
According to the third-quarter Business and Consumer Confidence Indices survey recently conducted by the Jamaica Conference Board of the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce, 93% of those who responded said that jobs were scarce.
A further 33% did not expect an improvement in their income.
Overall, the people interviewed had low expectations of the economy improving.
The morale of many Jamaicans has been low for some time, but things seem to have worsened since the government signed a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) early in 2013.
That has been compounded by the slide of the Jamaican dollar, which reached a record high of JA$100 to the US dollar in June of this year and has continued to fall in value.
In October, the governor of the Bank of Jamaica, Brian Wynter, expressed alarm at the rapid rate of devaluation of the Jamaican dollar.
Stacyann Shaw is a 37-year-old teacher of high school English. Like many other teachers, she has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government which has basically put a freeze on her income.
“I find the challenge mostly difficult when I go to the supermarket. You find that you’re buying less food with more money and you have to look at alternatives and just try to make do with what you have,” Ms Shaw told Caribbean Intelligence©.
Her utility bills, thankfully, have remained manageable.
“The electricity is not constant. It fluctuates. We don’t own our own home, so we rent, and the rent has gone up, but nothing significant,” she added.
Ways of coping
The problems with the economy are complicated by the problem of crime.
“One student in particular went home and found that his mother had been shot dead,” one teacher told Caribbean Intelligence©.
“Another student doesn’t have any parents, so he lives with his uncle and he is without fridge, without stove, without basic amenities …but with all of that, he was still able to come first in his class and pass all of his [CSEC] subjects with a two in English and ones in the rest.”
The others have been able to benefit from a food programme that the school provides.
“So they get breakfast, so that subsidises certain things,” their teacher explained.
Not even senior citizens seem to be exempt from the hard times. Beryl Symister, 73, has two grown sons, but still has to go scavenging for food, because her boys are both mentally challenged and unable to help her.
She receives a small pension and aid from the government.
“I usually do a little selling, but nothing not going on bright, so it doesn’t make any sense, so I just stopped it.
“I used to get a little pension, but it [is] not so wonderful, but I go along with that,” she added.
“I don’t get any help.”
There has been a rapid growth in the number of panhandlers [beggars] at the various intersections across Kingston and St Andrew who are willing to wipe windows for a few dollars.
However, the aggression of many of them led the Commissioner of Police, Owen Ellington, to call on the government to bring in laws to combat abusive beggars.
“They are a menace to drivers… some of them are violent, they spit at individuals in their cars, they spit on their windows, they threaten you and nothing can be done about it,” Commissioner Ellington said when he appeared before a parliamentary committee in October.
“We [the police] have tried every legislation, including the Roads Act, to find something to charge them for and every time we arrest and take them before the court, they are released, because what they are doing is not a crime," he explained.
It isn’t only adults who have taken up panhandling as a career.
Many a motorist pausing at a busy intersection at any hour of the day or night will come across school-age boys and girls, some of whom cannot be older than seven, peddling their wares in a bid to earn some dinner or lunch money.
As a Jamaican driving away from such encounter, you ask yourself: “Where are your parents?”
Unicef figures estimate that 516,000 Jamaicans (just under 20% of the population) live in poverty and that almost half of this figure are children.
Unicef also reckons that 11,000 children between the ages of 12 and 16 do not attend school.
Some have linked the reduction of poverty with the Caribbean decision to seek reparations for slavery.
“Reparations for slavery are as much a 'foreign debt' as that we are said to owe to the banks,” journalist Norris McDonald wrote in the Jamaican Gleaner in October.
“And if reparations ought not to be paid, then maybe we ought to take the same attitude to the foreign debt.
“There could even be a quid pro quo settlement, in which the existing debt is written off as the direct compensation along with other reparation payments.”
On the world stage, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller used her United Nations speech in September to call for a range of global economic and structural changes to help the world’s poor.
She said that too many of the world’s poor were seeing the reality of words quoted by Jamaican national hero Marcus Garvey: "Poverty is a hellish state to be in. It is no virtue. It is a crime.
“To be poor is to be hungry without possible hope of food; to be sick without hope of medicine; to be tired and sleepy without a place to lay one's head; to be naked without the hope of clothing; to be despised and comfortless.
“To be poor is to be a fit subject for crime and hell."
But it’s not only on the world stage that Jamaicans have sought to deal with the problem of poverty on their doorsteps.
The country’s best-known faces – its global athletic talent – all donate or work in some way for the country’s youth and with the poor.
The world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, is to be found behind a number of projects, from his own Usain Bolt Foundation for children to the Children of Jamaica Outreach programme.
Yohan Blake’s YB Afraid Foundation works with young people in Jamaica and other parts of the world.
The world’s fastest woman, Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce, also works with children through her Pocket Rocket Foundation.
Asked about her charity work, Shelley-Ann said it was important to her to create a legacy after she was gone.
“We dream to have individuals who change the world through sports and through academia," she said.
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