The Malta Independent 5 December 2023, Tuesday
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Financial challenges cause of vagrancy for half of homeless people in Malta

Kyle Patrick Camilleri Sunday, 19 November 2023, 09:00 Last update: about 16 days ago

Half of the Maltese homeless people end up without a roof over their heads due to financial issues, Ian Galea, the manager of Dar il-Hena Foundation, told The Malta Independent on Sunday. Other reasons leading to homelessness are addiction, domestic violence, mental health issues and broken relationships.

Dar il-Hena Foundation is a joint effort between the Ministry for Family and Social Solidarity, Caritas Malta and the Alfred Mizzi Foundation dedicated to providing aid to individuals experiencing homelessness in Malta and Gozo. Dar il-Hena Foundation has three shelters: Dar Papa Franġisku, Dar Maria Dolores (which is exclusive for women) and a long-term residential shelter in San Ġwann.


Dar Papa Franġisku is an emergency shelter, located in Fleur-de-Lys, Birkirkara, which has been open for over seven years. Apart from the abnormal times of the Covid-19 pandemic and when the emergency shelter was still in its initial stages, each person stayed an average of 15-17 bed nights, according to Galea.

Through Dar Papa Franġisku’s “revolving doors” structure (to try to accommodate everyone in need as an emergency shelter), the “maximum” stay in this centre is six weeks. Galea described that rather than being a strict time limit, due to the nature of their clients’ backgrounds, this six-week limit “is more of a guide rather than a strict maximum”. He said that “there is an inclination to extend for justifiable reasons, for example due to drug rehabilitation, relocation, employment and other circumstance”.


Five most common factors in rising homelessness

Galea told this newsroom that “half the problem is due to financial challenges” and that these issues are split into various types and cases. At times, these sudden constraints arise due to cases of unemployment (and poor retention of employment), other times because a relationship ends, causing the two partners to go their separate ways and therefore, decreasing their financial means, and in some cases, people simply struggle to keep up with the (increasing) cost of living.

For the latter cases, “their wage would serve them to the nearest cent”, so instead of heading to Dar Papa Franġisku just for shelter, they typically use the food service on offer to enjoy free meals.

Aside from financial constraints, other main factors contributing to homelessness (according to Dar il-Hena Foundation) are addiction, broken relationships, domestic violence and mental health.

Galea admitted that for clients suffering from addiction and mental health problems, “it can be difficult to help clients get to the next step”.

He said that six to 12 weeks is often not enough time in these cases for clients to work on their issues – especially for addiction, even with extensions onto the six-week “maximum” length of stay. “There is a need for a service that gives more time so that these people eventually manage,” Galea stated. He suggested that there is not just one type of solution, though this could come in the form of a programme, through the organisation of self-help groups or through some initiative(s) organised by local NGOs.

For Dar il-Hena Foundation’s clients experiencing substance abuse, Galea described an observation noted by the foundation. He said it is typical for clients to go through a cycle of taking substances regularly, then stop because they “take a break from the outside world” (potentially by entering Mount Carmel Hospital), then they are either referred to a homeless shelter or sent on the streets. The latter is when they restart their cycle of substance abuse, he said.


The gendered difference

Galea told this newsroom that statistics and experiences in homelessness vary between men and women. Namely, he mentioned that it is more common for women to experience homelessness due to the aforementioned factors of domestic violence and broken relationships.

For women, “domestic violence is the second most common factor” that leads to homelessness, Galea stated.

Galea informed this newsroom that while Dar il-Hena Foundation does not take in unaccompanied minors, they do take in accompanied minors. He stated that all the 15 minors taken in over the first half of this year were accompanied by their parents, though on most occasions, they “did not have minors come in with men”; the minors are typically accompanied by their mothers.

Meanwhile, “relationships breaking down is a common factor in women being rendered homeless”. He explained the difficulty of a single mother being forced to fend for herself as her relationship comes to an end. With minors often being accompanied by their mother, single mothers have to take care of their children while at the same time having no shelter of their own.

Based on his experience and several stories he has been told, Galea believes that homeless women are far more likely to be given a helping hand by the general Maltese community in comparison to homeless men.

Statistics have shown that over the last decade, men are significantly more likely to be rendered homeless than women. Galea told this newsroom that it has not been confirmed scientifically as to why this is the case. According to a recent 10-year study conducted by YMCA (2012-2022) throughout the last decade, 63.4% of people seeking shelter were male while only 36.6% were female.

Interestingly, Galea noted that, according to his foundation’s data, more local women use these shelter’s services than foreign women do and in the contrary they take in more foreign men than Maltese.


The individual case of migrants

“Apart from the financial side of the story, our biggest type of client population is migrants,” Galea said.

“The people who come to Malta do not come here willingly,” he said, before listing some of the main reasons why they emigrated from their homelands. Besides other causes, he said that some principal reasons to why they end up in the Maltese islands are “because they suffered injustices or were persecuted or were forced to flee due to wars and conflicts that made them experience the deaths of several of their loved ones”. Resultantly, it is fairly common for those migrants, admitted to Dar il-Hena Foundation’s shelters, to enter with issues pertaining to mental health and addiction.

“Migrants bring with them a package of cultural issues, the issue of job retention and mental health,” Galea said.

Furthermore, these migrants typically work low-skilled jobs such as in construction, domestic work (cleaning) or manual labour providing them with the minimum wage or a wage only slightly higher than that. Many of these migrants “typically begin unskilled and become skilled over time”, Galea added.

Newcomers initially struggle to fully integrate into local Maltese communities, but fortunately for them, many find settled and established communities from their country of origin in Malta.

On the topic of many migrants sharing rent, Galea told this newsroom that he senses a misconception with regard to the public’s understanding of having a number of foreigners sharing a single accommodation. He said that these scenarios often shed bad light onto landlords when, in reality, these situations typically arise at the request of these tenants.

“Think about it, if you have a monthly salary of €800, you need to see how you are going to reduce expenses,” he said. “If a flat’s monthly rent costs €1,000, ideally, they divide that between six people, rather than four, to improve their savings.”

As a result of these factors, it was implied that it is far from easy for homeless migrants to sustain a good lifestyle for themselves after receiving assistance from these emergency homeless shelters.


What can be done to better curb homelessness?

Galea responded that “there is a platform that is pushing for some basic things to be cast in stone”. In this regard, he called for a proper definition of “homelessness” to be provided, saying that with an established definition, “we would be able to begin clarifying what direction our frameworks are headed towards and what targets do they wish to achieve”.

When asked if the introduction of a social policy dedicated to curbing homelessness is needed, the foundation’s manager said that while having clearer directions for policy frameworks would help, Dar il-Hena believes that such work should happen “through a more holistic level, rather than simply developing a policy on homelessness to get the ball rolling”.

Galea was adamant that a detailed study should be conducted with the aim to find out why people are being rendered homeless in recent years – beyond simply identifying common factors.

“The issue is that we need to try and detect it beforehand, on a more educational level,” he said. Galea explained that if one had to analyse the education levels of these shelters’ clients, one would find that “typically, their highest tier of education would be O-Levels or A-Levels”, citing a lack in tertiary education. He also implied that such a study could delve into why cases nowadays are commonly more difficult to deal with than they used to be.

“We are noticing that cases are becoming very complex in their nature, if in the past they used to be relatively straightforward,” Galea said. “Nowadays, the problems are six-in-one.”

The aforementioned YMCA study had found that throughout this period, a total of 517 minors were homeless and that the total number of homeless children in the country was on the rise. Furthermore, the most impacted demographic of homeless people, according to this study, were men between the ages of 25-34 years, the most common age bracket for Dar il-Hena’s clients is between 40-50 years of age.

Galea also told this newsroom that Malta is “doing well as a country in terms of setting up support systems”, however, limitations exist in the aspect of recruitment within the social sector. He described the sentiment within the sector that “recruitment is a problem”, citing that it may be difficult to fill up vacancies because “the wages do not reflect the amount of work necessary to be done, making it less competitive to businesses – especially since most of these services are run by NGOs, apart from FSWS”.

Galea referred to online posts showing images of homeless persons sleeping outdoors and called for people to approach these scenarios with compassion and non-judgement. “There is a background behind everyone,” he said. “It wasn’t anyone’s goal to end up in a homeless shelter.”

“You do not know why that person cannot get out of their situation,” Galea stated. “If you interview anyone who comes here, no one is going to tell you that they’re happy to be homeless.”

Every person has a story and “if you do not sit down and listen to that story, you will never know what that person has gone through”.

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