The Malta Independent 17 January 2020, Friday

Experts call for more homeless shelters as demand grows over last two years

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 16 July 2017, 08:45 Last update: about 4 years ago

There are insufficient shelters for homeless people on the Maltese Islands to deal with demand, the people who run such homes told The Malta Independent on Sunday. Demand these days comes not only from Maltese nationals, but also from European citizens, particularly those from Eastern Europe, and non-EU citizens who are in Malta.

Foundation for Social Welfare Services CEO Alfred Grixti says that, from the information it has on homeless people who have applied to the FSWS for support, the majority are Maltese or non-European - in equal numbers - with fewer EU citizens than the other two groups.

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However, those who run such shelters in Malta have recently noticed a rise in Eastern European homelessness. Grixti said that it could very well be that "we are all looking at different sides of the same coin".

At the end of June, according internal Appoġġ statistics regarding homeless people who are in shelters: "We had 18 adults with 27 children, for whom accommodation was provided, another 88 adults in the various shelters and 37 on the waiting list - people who went to Appoġġ or other community services - and we are trying to find somewhere for them."

This is not the whole picture of homelessness on the island but merely the statistics the FSWS has on hand.

Alfred Grixti explained that the government has a public social partnership with a number of shelters, meaning that the government pays for these services. "We have such partnerships with Foundation Suret il-Bniedem, which runs one home for the homeless, one with Osanna Pia, run by the Salesians, two with the Dar il-Helena Foundation, one currently with the YMCA, one in Gozo and a new one being set up in San Ġwann. "There are a couple of other hostels but they are off the radar and we do not have a public social partnership with them."

Homelessness in Malta might not be as obvious as it is elsewhere in Europe. In Brussels, for example, one could be walking down a main shopping street at night and see a family with young children covered in blankets sleeping on the pavement. This sight is not common in Malta, and as such homelessness is not as visible as it is in other countries.

 

Over the past couple of years, Mr Grixti explained, the problem of homelessness has grown and Malta is a victim of its own economic success. "People are being priced out of rented accommodation. Previously, people on a low to medium income could afford rent and now they can't. These are the people who are coming to us. For example, they earn a bit more than the minimum wage, they're being told to pay more rent and they can't afford it."

There is no quick fix for this problem, Mr Grixti said. "It's not only the government that needs to resolve this, it's not just a matter of controlling rent or providing more shelters, it's a matter of doing a bit of everything.

"Do we need more social housing? Yes, we do, but then there is the issue of whether social housing should be provided for a lifetime or should be provided until the person is in a better situation and can move on. These questions are not just being asked in Malta, but also in other countries.

"We are beginning to face the problems that advanced countries have faced for years. The economy is doing well but there are people who are losing out."

When asked if he thinks Malta needs more shelters for the homeless, Mr Grixti agreed that it did but mentioned another aspect in Malta. "We are also responsible for providing services for the victims of domestic violence. When the victims leave their homes and come to us, we put them up in shelters. After they have been given help and counselling, they move into a secondary stage shelter and then hopefully can move back into the private sector. These women help themselves, eventually finding a job and becoming economically independent.

"We want to assist homeless people and I agree with the Dar Papa Frangisku method, where they tell the homeless people that they will not be there for eternity but will have to find a job and move on. Otherwise they would live at the shelter for goodness knows how long, and that is not helping them" he said.

Mr Grixti also spoke about helping homeless people acquire the skills needed to live independently.

The European angle

Head of Operations at Dar Papa Frangisku and Dar Maria Dolores Ernest Cherrett said that currently Dar Papa Frangisku is seeing more homeless foreigners - primarily from Eastern Europe - than homeless Maltese. "But had you contacted me a month ago, or if you were to come again in a month's time, the situation would probably be different because it changes frequently," he said.

Speaking generally, Mr Cherrett explained that the reason for the number of homeless Eastern Europeans in Malta is that they come over to find work: "but they come without a plan, in the sense that there will be a good chance of finding work here but they would not plan where they would stay, for example." This, he said, is also a result of the high rents of property here. "Then they're stuck. They will find work, but for sure that doesn't mean they'll get paid the next day and so won't be able to rent a place to stay."

He explains that Dar Papa Frangisku is an emergency night shelter for men with 20 beds and was opened about a year ago. "We also have Dar Maria Dolores, which is an emergency night shelter for women and has eight beds. These are the only two emergency night shelters on the island", he said.

Describing the difference between an emergency shelter and a residential shelter, Mr Cherrett explains that at an emergency shelter a person would arrive in the evening, have a shower, eat dinner and have a bed for the night, but then must leave in the morning, unlike residential shelters. The next day that person would have to request a bed again. "We have a maximum number of continuous nights for which you can request a bed at the emergency shelter: six weeks, unless the person finds work, in which case it is extended)."

He described how the shelters were created. "The Alfred Mizzi Foundation was planning to celebrate 100 years as a foundation, and it wanted to give something back to society. It approached Caritas who said they would help them, but also suggested approaching government to try and create emergency night shelters. Malta had residential shelters, but none for emergencies. The Dar il-Hena Foundation was formed in 2016 and the two shelters were then created."

Other reasons why a person might end up homeless in Malta could be if they had had trouble paying rent while at the same time suffering from an addiction. Another situation would be where domestic violence is involved, where - for example - a mother would need to leave her home with her children. Other situations include people with very low wages, or those with mental illness who need help. "Our homes do not look at a person's face. Whether you're Maltese, foreign, straight, a member of the LGBTIQ community doesn't matter to us, anyone can come." He said that the homes have support from other organisations, including Appoġġ and, for example, Caritas in cases of addiction, etc.

There have been situations, said Mr Cherrett, when they have had to turn people away from the shelter when it is full to capacity and he believes that Malta needs more emergency shelters and residential shelters. 

 

'Homelessness is still a stigma, a hidden social issue on which we are not focussing enough'

YMCA CEO Anthony Camilleri confirmed the current situation, where there are a number of European citizens who have ended up homeless in Malta. However, Dar Nikki Cassar (which accommodates up to 30 people) does not experience such spikes, given that its programme had changed from six months to 18 months as a result of an increase in rents and people in the programme were finding it difficult to obtain work ,etc. "So if our shelter is full, it is hard for us accept referrals, but I can say that, yes, in summer there is the likelihood of more homeless Europeans here - people who come to Malta looking for work and then become stranded.

"This summer we have had three similar cases of people who came to Malta and were stranded - travellers who either lost their jobs or did not have the money for rent and ended up here with us."

The YMCA has an agreement with Appoġġ whereby they refer people to the YMCA shelter, said Mr Camilleri. "If we have no space, Appoġġ tries to send them to other shelters. "If it's a night-time emergency and someone comes to us, we always accept them and then send them to Appoġġ the next morning.

"Our shelter is the only one that accepts men, women and children - the idea being not to split up families.

"There are definitely not enough shelters on the island, and we need more of them that provide programmes, and can give homeless people the skills they need to succeed," he said.

Describing the YMCA programme, Mr Camilleri said: "Every client is given a key worker - someone assigned to that person for 18 months - who will identify the reasons why the person in question became homeless. We then conduct a case review, asking a social worker from Appoġġ to meet with us each month at the shelter.

"A care plan for the client is then created. As an example, if the client had budgeting issues, in the next three months he or she will need to find and keep a job, while being taught key life skills.

"We also try and involve the client's family and friends, as we believe in the social support the client needs once becoming independent. We then have a disengagement process, whereby for up to two months after leaving, someone will follow up the case."

Mr Camilleri believes that Malta needs to compile national statistics on homelessness. "Homelessness is still a stigma, a hidden social issue that we are not focussing enough on. There needs to be proper research in this respect. I also see a difference between 'homelessness' and 'rooflessness'. The latter is when a person has nowhere to sleep, with all the shelters full, and thus being stranded in the street, which does happen in Malta. Homelessness refers to those who find a shelter, but don't have a home. We also need an education programme to train these people with proper life skills. We have had clients, for example, who don't even know how to take care of their personal hygiene which is all due to a lack of education."

Providing some statistics from the YMCA shelter, the number of homeless people referred to them seems to be rising. In 2014, 173 people were referred to the YMCA, rising to 239 people in 2015 and 278 people in 2016. "In 2016, 46 of cases were minors. Homelessness is a hidden social issue that is increasing in Malta." As for bed nights, the YMCA homeless shelter provided 3,936 bed nights in 2014, 3,223 bed nights in 2015 and 5,208 bed nights given in 2016.


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