During the homeless experience last month Photos: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Jason Borg/Matthew Mirabelli

During the homeless experience last month Photos: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Jason Borg/Matthew Mirabelli

Who are the homeless? Rosanne Zammit spoke to two homeless persons after doing her bit to raise money for the YMCA shelter in Valletta.

No fixed address

For just one night and one day last month I was homeless, after being invited by the YMCA to take part in its Homeless Personalities campaign.

It was held in Valletta to raise funds for the shelter and to raise awareness about the homeless in Malta.

Yet, people sleeping on the street is a rare sight in Malta, since homeless people tend to be hidden away. Being homeless does not necessarily mean sleeping on the street. The homeless of Malta usually find refuge in shelters run by voluntary organisations with assistance from the government.

The definition of homeless includes an individual who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate night-time place of abode. It could also be someone whose primary night-time place of abode is a supervised shelter designed to provide temporary accommodation, an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalised, or a public or private place not designed to be slept in.

At the YMCA event, some of us spent the day collecting money from passers-by while others telephoned businesses asking for useful donations in kind which would help the shelter.

I was touched when John, an immigrant from Cameroon, passed by early in the morning and stayed with us throughout the day. At first we were a bit wary since he didn't say anything. But later in the evening Xandru Grech, the athlete, got talking to him and it transpired that John had to leave his country and his experience in Malta had not been pleasant.

But he liked the YMCA initiative and he felt he should support it with his presence. John also spent the night with us on one of the mattresses in Republic Street. Meanwhile, Sam (not his real name), a drug user and former inmate who happened to be passing by on the way to meet a drug dealer, stopped to ask what was happening and stayed on to lend a hand, missing his appointment in the process.

The dealer called him on his mobile several times. Sam didn't answer.

He told us in the evening he had a feeling that his meeting with us could be the turning point in his life.

New home, new hope

After spending five months at the YMCA's shelter for the homeless, Doris and her 16-year-old son Joseph (not their real names) are in the process of moving to a home of their own later this month.

Doris, who turns 45 next month, has been applying at the Social Accommodation Department for a unit for the past 13 years. Finally, she is being given a place to call her own.

During these years, Doris and her son have been moving from one place to another, sometimes staying with her parents, with her boyfriends, or in shelters.

When she ended up on the streets one night last January after her most recent relationship came to an end, the government agency Appogg introduced her to the YMCA, which has been providing the family with shelter and the services of social workers since then.

All the relationships Doris has entered into have been violent and abusive but it is only now that she feels confident enough to face life without a man.

"I've had enough... All the men I had a relationship with abused of me and my son. I cannot take another man in my life," she said.

Doris's problems started when she was sexually abused as a 12-year-old. Although no intercourse had taken place, she spent a year worrying she might be pregnant, only convincing herself she wasn't when her first period came a year later. When she was 18, she wanted to become a nun but the vocation eventually fizzled out.

She entered into her first serious relationship when she was 21. It was violent; her boyfriend drugged her without her knowledge on several occasions. He also threatened to kill her family if she broke off the relationship. After a year, he left her for a man.

When she was 23 she was raped by a friend. She met another man when she was 24 and they were married just over a year later. However, it was a relationship based on fear rather than love. She got pregnant three years into the relationship and the only happy memory she recalls with her husband was during the birth of their son.

The relationship returned to its violent ways as soon as she got out of hospital and two years later she was pregnant with a daughter, whom she miscarried during the course of one of her husband's bashings.

Finally, her husband's beatings left her paralysed and, at age 31, she had to undergo a nine-hour operation. It was only 18 months later that she could walk properly again although one of her legs remains defective to this very day.

Doris stayed with her husband for her son's sake but he finally left her shortly before Joseph's fourth birthday. The marriage was later annulled.

She said she could never forget her parents' help during the most difficult period of her life but her relationship with them turned sour when she ignored their advice to give up men. She said she was looking for a father figure for her son.

"I still sometimes ask my son for forgiveness for not finding him a father."

Joseph is also finally settling into his new life and is currently undergoing a training programme on recycling at WasteServ, an EU project being carried out in collaboration between WasteServ, the YMCA Valletta, other non-governmental organisations and the Environment Ministry. He is also doing a computer course.

Following her marriage, Doris has had another three relationships. But through the YMCA's counselling she now feels strong enough to face the world on her own. And as soon as she settles into her new home, she will start studying beauty therapy.

The YMCA shelter for the homeless

Dar Niki Cassar, the YMCA's shelter for the homeless in Valletta, can only take 22 people but in recent weeks there has been a daily average of 24.

The building has been loaned to the YMCA for 10 years and the YMCA is already trying to find another place because the current shelter will eventually have to be replaced.

YMCA Valletta chairman Jean Paul Mifsud said that a survey carried out in 2001 found that up to 300 people in Malta were homeless at any one time.

Costs run into Lm12 an hour and this year's budget is estimated at Lm106,000. About one-fifth of this comes from the government.

YMCA Valletta, a non-profit, voluntary organisation specialising in the support, assistance and rehabilitation of homeless people, is helping more than 50 people every day.

Social worker Roberto Calleja said that clients were provided with shelter when it was required and were helped to reintegrate in society through support and assistance.

Mr Calleja is one of the YMCA's two social workers. The association, started by volunteers back in 1976, now employs five full-timers and six part-timers. A lot of work is still done by volunteers, including professionals.

The organisation also receives professional support from HSBC and Vodafone and the Housing Authority pays the wages of one of its social workers.

SMS donations to the YMCA can be sent on 5061 8088 for Lm2 or on 5061 9212 for Lm5.

A place of her own

Born as Lino, Lina (not her real name), 27, has also been at the YMCA shelter for the homeless since January.

The relationship with her family turned sour because of her lifestyle, which she says she didn't choose - it was just something she was born with.

Lina's parents separated when she was very young and together with her brother she spent most of her childhood moving from one children's home to another.

Following the separation, her mother moved in with her gay brother and sent the children to a home so they would not be influenced by his lifestyle.

"But this is not something you choose. From a very young age I used to steal make-up from my mother and dress up in girl's clothes at the homes. I used to do this privately but I came out as soon as I turned 18."

Although she has not yet undergone a sex change operation, Lina hopes to be able to do so in future and her dream is to eventually find the right partner with whom she would be able to share the rest of her life.

Another of her hopes is to find a job. But, because of her situation, few employers are willing to give her a chance.

However, Lina might soon fulfil her dream of having a place of her own to call home since there is a possibility that the Social Accommodation Department, through the intervention of the Ministry for Social Policy, will give her a unit.

Card campaign

The YMCA has this year also launched a fund-raising campaign inviting the public to authorise it to charge their credit card Lm1 per month.

Application forms and further information are available from the YMCA in Merchants Street, Valletta.

Bob Geldof concert

Irish musician and Live Aid legend Bob Geldof is supporting the YMCA Valletta's homeless campaign with a concert at Manoel Island on June 28.

Bob Geldof worked with Dublin's homeless as a teenager and had to live rough when he first moved to London.

The concert will be supported by Maltese artistes, including Ira Losco, Carrie & Band with their 11-year-old drummer, and Winter Moods.

Also supporting Bob Geldof on the night are tribute bands from the UK for Coldplay, U2 and Queen.

Tickets at Lm10 standing and at Lm50 VIP are on sale from Vodafone's outlets.

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