In three days, the holiday most celebrated universally will have come and gone. Some persons would have prepared for Christmas early, others are still in the throes of preparation – cleaning, painting, polishing, decorating, cooking, baking, shopping – and for some all of this will continue until Saturday morning. For most of us, a huge part of Christmas is the giving and sharing. Gifts gaily wrapped in bright paper, stuffed into holiday-themed gift bags, some wildly expensive, some mere tokens will be given and received. It’s the time of the year too when charity abounds. The homeless, orphans, children in difficult circumstances, the elderly and causes usually receive from all quarters, never mind if for the entire year just past they were invisible people.
Invisible people like the sick woman who lay tucked into the corner of Hadfield Street and Mandela Avenue for some time on Saturday last as scores of other humans whizzed past in buses and cars, on motorcycles and bicycles and on foot until one finally stopped. A call was made to the relevant authorities with a plea that she be taken to the hospital. On Sunday, a dead body fitting the description was found in another section of town, close to the Georgetown Public Hospital. The facts are not known, but one can surmise that the woman might have been taken to the hospital and subsequently managed to creep away, or she might have been left in the vicinity of the hospital.
On Tuesday, another body – that of a homeless man – was found in a yard at Plantain Walk, West Demerara with a head wound. There have been several other instances where destitute persons simply keeled over and died from whatever ailed them; others have died by misadventure.
Then there are the living invisibles – adults and children who walk about begging or the drug addicts with their dirty, menacing looks. Some of these are usually rounded up and removed from the public’s eye whenever Guyana hosts international events, but their very existence is otherwise mostly ignored. A walkabout in downtown Georgetown right now would reveal – for those who have eyes to see that is – that they are still very much a part of the landscape. In fact, their numbers seem to have increased, possibly because the absent-minded handouts they receive would have also increased in keeping with the season.
Of course this is not a situation that is unique to Guyana; homeless persons exist the world over. Our predicament appears to be the lack of a cohesive plan to deal with our various categories of destitute people. The Night Shelter in the city was expanded in August this year. It now caters for 250 persons who are homeless and indigent and its facilities include a bus service which transports them to the shelter where they can take advantage of the services – meals, medical check-ups and 24-hour accommodation.
Some time ago in recognition that the need was greater than the service currently on offer, government announced that it would build a US$2 million shelter at Onverwagt, West Coast Berbice. An agreement was duly signed in November last year with the Venezuelan government, which is funding the building of the shelter. At the time it was stated that work would have started by December and the scheduled completion date was August this year, which has come and gone with nary a word from the authorities. Instead, in August, the East La Penitence shelter was expanded. Meanwhile, homeless people continue to sleep on city streets, beg and steal. The city’s Christmas cleaning did not seem to include their removal to somewhere out of sight this year. But perhaps it’s not yet done; perhaps in time for the Main Big Lime.