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Poverty runs deep in Qawra, Ħamrun

Poverty areas breed crime

“Another world”... Okella Agius in Ħamrun is a poverty cluster and no-go area, according to new research which identifies several other such zones around the island. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

“Another world”... Okella Agius in Ħamrun is a poverty cluster and no-go area, according to new research which identifies several other such zones around the island. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

One of the country’s most intense concentrations of deprivation is in the tourist resort of Qawra, which exhibits 16 times the national poverty standard, according to preliminary research to identify such clusters.

The rats are still there and the kitchens still double as bedrooms – and toilets

Rental costs in Qawra and Buġibba are low compared to other localities, attracting the subjects of the study, lone parents on social welfare assistance.

Tourist Street turns out to be home to a multitude of social problems, according to Caritas researcher Leonid McKay.

He pointed to the “rampant abuse” in the locality, where landlords rule as opposed to a more regulated system in housing estates. They present inflated utility bills of about €200 a month and kick tenants out because they cannot pay the rent, resulting in six apartment changes in a year in some cases.

The findings are emerging from a social policy study in progress, looking into the spatial landscape of poverty and to what extent its clustering affects quality of life.

In its mapping of Malta’s poverty, it pinpoints seven localities – some known, others off the radar – that have the highest concentration of people on social benefits.

But it also zooms into the streets and even properties, singling out Ħamrun’s Okella Agius, in Qormi Road, which Mr McKay describes as “another world”.

“I never believed I would find what I found,” he said, adding that the situation had not improved over the last 40 years except for the number of syringes.

“The rats are still there and the kitchens still double as bedrooms – and toilets.”

The study attempts to show that the concentration of pover­ty magnifies the problems of the poor.

Together with Saviour Formosa, Mr McKay has analysed the distribution of 8,645 incidences of legally separated females and single, unmarried parents on non-contributory welfare benefits.

Together with Qawra, Valletta also tops the list that focuses on separated females, with 15 times the national standard poverty rate, while the social housing estates of Pembroke and the urban sprawl of Marsascala exhibit pockets at high risk of poverty clustering.

In terms of single, unmarried parents on welfare benefits, Valletta has the highest concentration, with four pockets showing a poverty incidence of more than eight times the national standard rate, with the most significant concentration in one particular area showing 17 times more.

Mr McKay has established an indicator of poverty, based on statistics showing that members in single-parent households are at the highest risk of poverty in Malta, but he is as yet unable to divulge the national standard rate.

Another locality of “extremely” high risk is in an area of Xgħajra, where former boathouses have been turned into homes. Areas in Qawra, Ħamrun/Marsa and Cospicua exhibit high risk rates.

“Generally, these pockets are either concentrated in social housing, rented estates or in urban sprawl, where housing rent is available and affordable,” Mr McKay said.

In Pembroke, the poverty clusters are close to the villas and only visible once indoors, he said.

Mr McKay has visited these areas and observed that some are visibly depressed, mostly no-go locations and highly likely to be crime hotspots. In some cases, the environment was nasty, he said, so much so that not even doctors would enter.

Speaking at a seminar on the global phenomenon of the feminisation of poverty, organised by the Ideat Foundation, at Melita Gardens in Attard, Mr McKay said urban sprawl, characterised by anonymous environments, provided escape routes for non-conformists, areas to live with social equals and part-time, or sometimes undeclared, precarious jobs closer to home.

“Here, the poor are likely to lack close ties with their extended family but find support from neighbours and friends,” he said.

The study is now in the second phase and Mr McKay is carrying out one-to-one interviews with lone mothers from the identified pockets. He has stumbled upon a “closed-curtain” environment. But beyond the doors, the interviewees are “talkative” about prostitution, drugs and domestic violence.

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