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How Jamaica’s homeless are surviving amidst COVID-19 scare

By Jamaica Observer

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DAVIS… mi try fi clean up my likkle section but not everybody in here cooperate

(JAMAICA OBSERVER) — Donald Atkins was in remarkably good spirits although he had just spent the night sleeping out on the street in a city under curfew.

The 62-year-old man sleeps on the sidewalk on the corner of Hanover Street and Sutton Street, downtown Kingston, where the Jamaica Observer spoke with him last week.

Atkins’s sleeping spot also happens to be just across the road from the Marie Atkins Night Shelter, where he opted not to stay because he much rather watch over his belongings, which included a small radio, some clothes and pieces of cardboard.

“Di curfew last night, is over there everybody haffi stay, but I couldn’t guh and lef mi tings dem,” he said. “I just spread piece a cardboard and draw fi piece a sheet and lie dung. Even last night mi have mi likkle radio listening.”

The man explained that had not been sheltering at the Government-run facility because after living there for five years he was put out and has been sleeping at that corner since.

“I was brought to poor relief and because I was over there nearly five years, dem put mi out,” he said, adding that while he doesn’t shelter there, he often goes there for food.

The morning after the Government-sanctioned curfew to prevent the spread of COVID-19 went into effect, Atkins, who is asthmatic, shared that while he was keeping abreast with all the news surrounding the pandemic, he was not at all worried.

“Yuh know seh mi nuh fraid,” he said. “But mi feel like dis one more dangerous, di corona-19, because up to yesterday it tek more life than anything in di United States and Iran.”

The man, who was also aware of the personal safety measures people must take to prevent the spread of the virus, said his only health concern was the effect that being out in the elements has on his asthma condition.

“When di rain drizzle pon mi, mi asthma badda mi and it tek a long while fi mi chest get betta,” he said. “Mi know seh if yuh have a health issue, old people must stay inside, or if you see any sign you must go to di doctor, and use your hand sanitiser or yuh alcohol,” he said.

Atkins, however, has not yet acquired any of those items.

During the pandemic and the spread of the virus locally, the Government has focused its attention on the most vulnerable, including the elderly who have been advised to remain at home. The measures were pushed up a notch on Tuesday when the Government announced a seven-day curfew starting at 8:00 pm and ending at 6:00 am.

On Thursday, Minister of Local Government and Community Development, Desmond McKenzie announced that a 100-bed overnight shelter to accommodate the homeless would be made available during the nightly curfew.

However, with the approximately 1,900 homeless people across the island, with some 600 in the Corporate Area alone, according to a 2012 National Committee on Homelessness report, adhering to these restrictions will not be feasible for all.

In the case of others who can shelter, but who are essentially homeless, social distancing will also prove challenging.

Alton Davis, who lives in an abandoned building also on the corner of Hanover Street and Sutton Street, downtown Kingston, in what he said was once a Lodge building, told the Sunday Observer that he tries his best to observe social distancing, despite having to share the dilapidated structure with eight others.

“Mi try fi clean up my likkle section but not everybody in here cooperate,” said Davis, explaining that while he welcomed the curfew, he feared that the lack of cooperation would lead to a total lockdown.

“Afta a time, if di people dem don’t cooperate fi di seven days, dem a guh lock wi dung fi weeks and my concern is how wi a guh get food,” he said.

Adjacent to the building was another old structure which once housed an office of the Ministry of Labour, where several other persons were found to be living when the Sunday Observer visited the area on Thursday.

“Since di COVID-19 mi deh yah a fret because wi know is a serious ting and mi have mi seven-year-old son wid mi,” said Patricia Beckford, a mother who lives close to the back of the building.

Her neighbour, Oswald Burton, an 86-year-old man who also lives inside the old building, and who was seen sitting outside among a company of friends, said that while he was taking precautions he was not at all concerned about catching the virus.

“If me did a worry about anything me wouldn’t deh here till now,” he said.

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