Homelessness is not the pathology, but a symptom

Three hundred. According to Dr. Roberta Sammut, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, this is the number of people who were sleeping rough in Malta in 2019. This figure does not include thousands of people living in garages or other substandard accommodation. This number is not just a statistic. It represents three hundred individuals, each with their own history of challenges and heartbreak that led to their predicament. These are our brothers and sisters deprived of a basic human right, stripped of their dignity. Three hundred people whom we have failed. This is a social emergency that we may no longer allow to be a footnote. It needs to be brought to the forefront of our social agenda, without further ado.

An acrimonious breakdown of a relationship; financial hardship brought about by the loss of one’s livelihood, exacerbated by the ever-soaring cost of accommodation; a sudden illness that may limit a person’s ability to engage in gainful employment. Indeed, various situations may lead to homelessness, which may strike us or someone close to us when least expected. 

Young people may have been disowned by their families for various reasons. These often end up in a struggle for survival as they attempt to escape from reality by resorting to mind-altering substances – leaving them unable to take stock of their lives and to take the first steps towards reintegration into society. We are woefully unprepared and unequipped to provide the help that this category of homeless people needs. Shelters for the homeless, many operated by the Church or voluntary organizations are bursting at the seams. What is more, people are often accepted on the condition that they are not users of any banned substance. This presents us with a painful conundrum. It a priori disqualifies the most vulnerable from ever gaining access to these shelters. Turning these people away condemns them to being in proximity and in the lure of drugs, driving them further and deeper into despair, underscoring the helplessness and hopelessness of their situation, further damaging their ego and harming their motivation. 

Some may find temporary shelter in abandoned vehicles or squat in somebody’s unused property. Some resort to petty crime, merely to stay alive or to fund their addictions, often leading to conviction and incarceration. On being released, they are once again homeless, and the cycle of crime and incarceration is hence propagated. Their status as former convicts with a tarnished police conduct certificate is a major setback as they struggle to find employment which would grant them some degree of financial independence, restore their dignity and bestow hope of a better future. Enrolment in a drug rehabilitation program is not mandatory and depends entirely on their motivation to seek help. But it is specifically their dependence on drugs that prevents them from making the right decisions and clouds their judgment, even preventing them from turning up for appointments with their social workers. 

Homelessness is not the actual pathology but a symptom of an underlying cause. Before we can treat the root cause of the disease however, we need to address the and mitigate the social emergency. We need to bolster our capacity to provide immediate shelter and adequate assistance to those who need it. It can never be acceptable to turn away a human being. We need to create more emergency shelters so that no individual will ever have to spend another night on the streets. This would provide more than mere accommodation and food. It would reassure the victims that they are not outcasts but a valid and valued component of society, increasing the likelihood of a successful reintegration into it. 

We need to be proactive. Serving time in a correctional facility is of little value, unless it is taken as an opportunity to impart a wide variety of skills to equip the victims with the tools that they need to reboot their lives successfully. Following their release from prison they need to be monitored closely by a team of social workers and provided with job opportunities, helping them acquire work experience, skills and credibility that would make them employable and ultimately independent. Of what use is incarceration, if a former convict is released to face the exact circumstances that led to the incarceration in the first place? 

We need to create a kinder society, a more inclusive society in which every individual’s rights are upheld and safeguarded. We as a nation need to elevate the victims of homelessness to the dignity that is naturally theirs. Indeed, we owe it to them.

Mark Zerafa
ADPD Deputy Chairperson
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 30 May 2021