This column first appeared in Malta Today
There was a disturbing post on Facebook this week in which a man described how he came across a homeless, 22-year-old young man living on the streets of Valletta. Disturbing, because we are not used to seeing people sleeping rough in this country, especially not someone who is Maltese.
In our mind’s eye, those of us born and bred here are supposed to have family, if not a nuclear family at least an extended family, some grandmother or aunt or uncle or maybe even in a cousin – so how was it that this young man had no one? When I hear such stories, I am forced to rethink everything I had ever assumed about Maltese families; it had always been my assumption that no one would ever allow “one of their own” to end up on the streets like that, especially at such a relatively young age.
We are so fervent when it comes to proclaiming how blood is thicker than water, and we are often so passionate about our children, verging on helicopter parenting and over-protection, that outright neglect and cold indifference towards one’s own family members just doesn’t quite gel. What I find so difficult to understand is that this is also often a land of extreme contrasts. You get mothers who refuse to let their children grow up or leave home (taking this suggestion as a personal affront) and to become independent. They jump up from the sofa the minute their (adult) children come through the door in order to warm up and serve them their dinner (willingly and lovingly I might add, fussing over them and insisting that they do it). And then you get a case like this, which makes you wonder: How can it be that no one in this world cares about this 22-year-old and where he is getting his next meal from, and who has had to resort to begging for 60 cents to buy a bottle of water?
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. This same concerned man who wrote about it on FB went on to say that the next day he discovered there were more people covered by plastic sheets sleeping at the gardens in the capital city. The usual flurry of comments demanding to know the nationality of these homeless people ensued – so clearly missing the point that it makes you want to slam your laptop shut in exasperation. Isn’t any person sleeping on a bench in Malta a human being? As they went off into their own little world of finger-pointing and blame, others could only come up with platitudes (jaħasra, miskin) which while at least showing some empathy, does not really get us anywhere.
It is also pretty useless to lament the fact that we have never had homeless people in Malta before. While true, this observation is neither here nor there. There are a lot of things we have never experienced in Malta before, and yet here we are in 2019, faced by a society which has changed beyond recognition and which would completely astound those who have been absent for a long time. Imagine, for example, someone locked away for 25 years who had to be released into today’s Malta, who overnight is suddenly faced by the changes which have happened since 1994. I think the shock of it would be too much for them to take as they try to grapple with what we now take for granted, from the technology to the reality of multi-ethnic communities to the attempts to make the island look like a metropolis.
Of course, the homeless in Malta did not “suddenly” appear but are a stark fact of life which has been buried and hidden through the work of NGOs such as the YMCA, which have managed to keep them from being too visible – so far. But, apparently, all the homeless shelters are full to capacity and cannot take any more. At the same time, the social problems which have led to homelessness have grown exponentially. In February of this year, during a conference entitled Homelessness: The hidden scandal, it was estimated that 300 people are homeless. Roberta Sammut, the Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Malta pointed out that homelessness is defined as sleeping outside, in unsafe housing, abandoned buildings or in cars.
As we sit here, comfortably in our own homes, which are either paid for or on which we are still paying a monthly mortgage thanks to the fact that we are in secure employment, the idea of not having any shelter seems so surreal that it is difficult to relate. It is easy to be dismissive and say ‘it’s their fault, they need to get a job’. For those who have never been in dire straits, it is not easy to fathom how someone can end up homeless. But use your imagination and just think of what would happen if say, you are hit by a major financial setback, such as losing your job, or a crippling physical or mental illness which prevents you from working and drains all your savings. Imagine not being able to make your mortgage payments, running out of funds, and losing your home.
Sometimes people end up with nowhere to live because of dysfunctional family relationships leading to estrangement between parents and children, or domestic abuse in which one person ends up having to leave the matrimonial home with nowhere to go. The splitting up of assets in bitter divorces also sometimes leaves one party in financial ruin. Drug addiction, criminal behaviour and serving time in jail, are other reasons which can explain homelessness.
Heavy debts due to a gambling addiction can also simply wipe out everything you own. Throw in fractured families which have cut off ties, exorbitant rents, and the lack of a support network, and it becomes easier to understand how someone can end up sleeping on a bench.