By Themba Mkhize
When people abroad ask me to describe life in Jamaica, I sometimes use the word animated. There is barely ever a lull. Even on the most saturated days, it always feels like another moment of drama is lurking, barely an inch out of sight.
These dramatic events stain our memories, compounding with similar memories from the past to influence the lens through which we interpret life. News of each incident, scandal or murder, leaves a little indentation on our personalities. They fuel outrage, cynicism and comedy for weeks at a time, then are forgotten until something similar catches our attention again.
But the worst of them never leave us.
The attack on six homeless men in Kingston and St Andrew in one night – which has cost five of them their lives thus far – is one such incident. Fortunately, as things stand now, it appears to have been an isolated occurrence carried out by a single perpetrator.
Even with all the drama of the last few weeks – “the plane”, “the murder in the church”, “the businessman who allegedly killed one wife too many” – the unprovoked murder of helpless, extremely vulnerable and, at least in some cases, mentally ill, homeless men was particularly harrowing.
Who are they?
Information about homelessness is both scant and dated, but I hypothesize that, generally, there is little attention paid to the homeless community because there is little need to pay attention to them. Meaning that on the day to day basis, their influence on our daily lives seems to be minute.
Firstly, their population is small. With an approximate population of 2000 homeless people (according a 2020 CVM TV quote from Desmond McKenzie, our Local Government minister), homeless persons make up less than 0.1% of the Jamaican population.
Furthermore, they are not a major stakeholder group. Unlike the youth, or women, for example, it is hard to see the homeless vote swinging an election. They are not key campaign funders. They are not the target market for a great many, if any members of the private sector. They generally don’t hold much influence in any corner of society. We pass them on the way to do our business, but rarely does it ever feel like they impact our business. Outside of staffers from the Ministry of Local Government and a number of formal and informal support groups that donate resources (particularly food) periodically, it appears that functional contact with the broader society is limited.
Added to this, many are mentally ill and, as such, inspire feelings of apprehensiveness about their capacity to cause harm. I have personally witnessed multiple physical and sexual assaults by “mad men” in New Kingston, Cross Roads and Half-Way Tree, dating back to my early childhood and high school days.
So, what next?
There is no simple remedy to homelessness. Many of the structural issues afflicting the homeless are also afflicting other members of Jamaican society to a serious degree. According to the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ), the homeless are among the vulnerable because of their low educational status, unemployment, lack of support systems, drug abuse, mental and other health problems, deportation and likely criminal record (National Policy on Poverty and National Poverty Reduction Programme, 2013).
But these are not localized issues. The homeless represent extremes at the intersection of poor human development, a lack of opportunities, poor personal decision making and bad luck, or illness. Each homeless person travels their own route to this end of life’s maze. I say that to say many Jamaicans could easy slip into homelessness, given the simultaneous incidence of a set of unfortunate factors.
The aim then, in the short term, ought to be mitigating the physical security challenges of being homeless. For example, providing a reasonably safe physical space to facilitate night time rest and hygienic practices for the entire homeless population is a fair foundation from which to cast a long term response.
But it is worth remembering that we live in a country where the shooting of nine random patrons at a shop, or seven random patrons at a bar, or six random patrons at a party, is no longer outlandish. Realistically, if violent crime continues at this rate, every group will eventually get its heavy dose. Furthermore, in my estimation, much of the outrage was not truly rooted in the problem of homelessness itself, but in fear of the potential introduction of a new brand of violence, and a new type of killer, with a new, yet undefined target.
Still, for the record, to address homelessness in the long term is to address the structural issues which, at their extremes, lead to people ending up homeless in the first place. Homelessness is only a symptom.
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