Saturday, April 29, 2017

My Response to a Friend's Questions on the Problem of Street Dwellersin Guyana


[Is this a social, humamitarian, economic, health, or political problem?]
This is OUR problem. Our nation's problem. Our crisis. Like when a member of our family is in crisis - a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife, a mother, a father, we become worried, concerned, willing to move heaven and earth to help them. We focus more on helping them than on analysis. We consider the impact on the larger family, and we strive to the best of our ability to remedy the situation. 

[Why do these people sleep on the streets?]
First of all they are not "these people". They are humans, our fellow citizens, our people. Secondly, we don't know definitively the reason each Street Dweller lives on the street. We make a lot of assumptions as to their reasons, and our assumptions are largely incorrect. The only way we can answer that question is to sit with them and to ask them directly. But before we ask them questions of such a personal nature, we have to spend time with them, establish their trust. 

[Do they have families who care about them?]
Some street dwellers do have families; some of them don't. Some (Sajun for example) have families who love and care about them. Some of them have families who do not care about them. 

[Is mental illness and drug addiction the reason they are on the streets?]
Mental illness is not the reason people dwell on the streets. There are people who are mentally ill who live in homes. Drug and alcohol addiction/abuse is not the reason people live on the streets. It is too easy to reduce the problem to mental illness and drug abuse. Some people develop drug and alcohol addiction while living on the streets because they want to escape the moment to moment of living on the streets. 

[Are homeless people homeless because there is no home to go to? Or have they chosen not to live in available homes and to comply with sanitary expectations?]
Some people live on the streets because they lack the means of self-sustenance or because they are unable to care for themselves. Some people live on the streets by choice. They have a home, but for some reason they choose to live on the streets. Sajun, for example, lives on the street because he is unable to take care of his children, Paul and Leah. He cannot work because he cannot use his right hand which was severely injured in an accident. He is too embarrassed to face his family because as a man he cannot provide for them. Some people choose not to live in the provided shelter (The Night Shelter) because the conditions of that shelter is worse than on the streets.

[Is it not true that many homeless people make more money per day by begging than a minimum wage worker?]
First of all not everyone who begs on the streets is a street dweller. Many individuals who beg do have homes (for example, Auntie Neisha, Miss Renee). You can often see mothers (some of them quite young) with their children begging on the streets. Secondly, contrary to that erroneous assumption, those who beg do not make more money per day than a minimum wage worker. On most days, they are barely able to acquire sufficient money to buy a 400 GY dollars meal. 

[If they choose not to care about themselves, why should we?]
First, the question assumes that street dwellers choose not to care about themselves. This is another grossly erroneous assumption. Some street dwellers do not know how to care for themselves. Most street dwellers do not have the luxury of change of clothing as most of us do. Street dwellers do not have access to clean water on the streets or access to facilities that would allow them opportunities for appropriate disposal of personal waste or for cleaning themselves. Secondly, we should care about street dwellers because their problem is our problem. Street dwelling as a problem represents a breakdown in our society which, if not dealt with appropriately will lead to callousness, estrangement, indifference, etc. We cannot survive as a society with such mindset.

[If I became financially destitute, mentally challenged, or a drug addict, would I ask for help or wish to be left alone?]
I do not know what you would do under the circumstance. Further, remember that dwelling on the streets is not a logical corollary of financial destitution, mental challenge, or drug/alcohol addiction or abuse. These might lead to homelessness. There are people who are in the circumstances you identify but who still live in some home. Now, very few people desire to be left alone. The rare few (like Mr. Meertins) who so desire are those who have lived on the streets for such a long time that there is no way one can get them to do otherwise. Most street dwellers desire help. Some are too embarrassed to ask and some do not know how to ask, lacking the literary, emotional, elocutory equipment to do so.

[Personal choice, freewill and humanitarian/medical intervention is a delicate dance. How much should a government invest in mental health and social intervention?]
This question needs reframing as it assumes a correlation between mental health and street dwelling. It is a mistake to reduce the problem of street dwelling to such constructs as mental health, alcohol/drug addiction, etc. Those to whom we gave the mandate of managing the affairs of our sovereign people ought to set in place and maintain policies and services that would minimize and eventually eradicate street dwelling. Auntie Neisha, who is obviously of age to receive a pension or some form of social security to help her with her daily expenses, cannot receive such service because she does not know her date of birth nor does she have her birth papers. There are many like her, locked out because of the impassable wall of bureaucracy.

[What is our responsibility as family/friend to those suffering?]
The answer is a no-brainer. The operative word is suffering. I hope that we have not become so desensitized that the natural response of empathy and direct care have departed us.

[photo art by Ric Couchman]