April 22, 2005

Garbed in fetid rags they loiter on the streets of the nation’s capital, often begging and hounding passersby. Everyday is a hustle and they “create hell” for pedestrians whom they feel are invading their prized turf. The streets belong to them… This is where they sleep, wake and operate.

The growing number of homeless people living on the streets of Kingstown is becoming a real concern. {{more}}These people occupy sections of the sidewalks around the busy city as if they pay rent for the spaces. They guard selected locations as if it were their right. Sometimes, barricades of debris partition their modest “abodes” from the intrusion of shoppers and the public.

Surviving off the remains of leftovers from the bottom of garbage bins, food is often a scarce commodity to these drifters. They hunt from bin to bin to maintain a steady diet. For most of them, home is where their legs decide to take a break. Their nights are spent on hard concrete pavements, sometimes with small pieces of cardboard to cushion their bodies while they ponder the rough conditions of their lives.

They are described as vagrants, the forgotten, and the lost. They exist at the margins of the society. Few know their stories, or even care to. Do they have relatives? Just who are they?

SEARCHLIGHT will shine some light on the shadows of these drifters, most of whom prowl after dark.

As if former Calypso Monarch Carlos ‘Rejector’ Providence’s song “Vagrant life is nice” were true, the number of homeless people flocking the streets continues to increase. And, though the influx of drifters that maraud the streets continues to be a serious problem, little attempt is made to limit their unwanted presence.

Like bats, they come out when the city closes and the sun shuts its eyes. Evidence of their presence becomes clear when one drives through the streets after dark. Overturned garbage bins and spills of debris flood the drains, testifying to the presence of this dispossessed and underprivileged lot. Their shadows are thrown against the walls, blending into the piles of garbage outside the doors of restaurants and business places.

“Tarzan,” is one such soul; he plies his beggar’s trade to maintain his cocaine addiction. His sojourn in the city began six years ago when he left his home village of Coull’s Hill, on the Leeward coast of the island for Kingstown. His life in the city has been one of desolation. He has given up what seemed to be a hopeless job as a labourer, and has now opted to scavenge his daily bread from the bottom of the city’s garbage. The reason is difficult to grasp, but with Tarzan, life in the city is just another hustle.

Another character we met refused to give his name. He does not consider himself a vagrant but when we caught up with him late one Monday evening, his skeletal frame was bent over a pile of boxes, garbage from a nearby supermarket.

Yet another weary soul once spent 27 days at the Kingstown General Hospital. Diagnosed with diabetes, amputation was the only hope of saving his already wrecked and shattered life.

He refused to go to the Home for the Elderly after his release from the General Hospital in 2002. Three years later, he finds shelter on the streets of Kingstown.

His name is Ivan Victory. You probably see him everyday, but not many know the story of the homeless 60 year-old that sits quietly under the gallery of the Salvation Army and Gonsalves Liquors buildings on Melville Street. With one foot and a crutch for support, Ivan lingers on the sidewalks scraping whatever pennies are donated to him by the few who are pitiful and who sometimes listen to his plight.

When SEARCHLIGHT caught up with Ivan late Monday evening he was just preparing to take his nap on the sidewalk.

Guarded by his best friend, a stray dog he named Rover, he slowly raised his head, now alert to the sound of walking feet coming too close to his resting place. Luckily for him we were only armed with a camera and a few questions.

“Sometimes life on the streets is not comfortable for me, but I am only willing to move depending on who it is,” Ivan mentioned.

For the old man, it is difficult at times to fend off the younger and more vibrant street people who hunt and fight for whatever remains to be shared among them.

Ivan, who revealed that he is a former sailor, expressed concern with the way people like him are being treated. The constant pestering he puts up with on the roads is the greatest problem for the elderly man, but though he continues to face the harsh conditions of street life, he is not too eager to move.

“I prefer being on the block rather than being in a Home…I would only leave the streets depending on who it is, I am not too comfortable on the streets, but I would only leave depending on where I go,” he repeated.

The sun had already hid its bold face, making way for night to fall bringing its chilly winds on the already cold streets where these people live. As the night draws closer Ivan sits quietly at the edge of a prominent liquor store. He clutches a small black plastic bag with a T-shirt, his change for the next day from his threadbare clothes.

His face mirrors a man tired of living. Twisting his toothless mouth, Ivan explained to Searchlight that he has four children: three sons and one girl, all of whom reside in neighbouring Barbados. But he does not describe any of them as family: “I don’t consider any of them family because they don’t study me…a stranger on the street is better to me than family.”

Forcing his partly feeble body on the edge of a building, he sits quietly with his closest and probably only friend, Rover. His four-legged friend keeps watch over any unusual movements around. His days on earth seem numbered, as hard times quickly suck his vivacity from him.