Homeless crisis a threat to children

  • Child and family advocates: Sheelagh Cooper, the chairwoman of Habitat for Humanity of Bermuda, and Elaine Butterfield, the Women’s Resource Centre (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

    Child and family advocates: Sheelagh Cooper, the chairwoman of Habitat for Humanity of Bermuda, and Elaine Butterfield, the Women’s Resource Centre (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

A “national crisis” of homelessness is a major threat to the welfare of Bermudian children, charity leaders have warned.

Elaine Butterfield, the executive director of the Women’s Resource Centre, said her organisation received calls every day from people concerned about mothers without a roof over their heads.

Sheelagh Cooper, the Habitat for Humanity of Bermuda chairwoman, added that at least four families had left the island in recent months because their situations became so serious it was feared children would be separated from their parents.

Ms Cooper said: “The problem of homelessness among single individuals is obviously well known as we see these people and it’s a critical problem by itself.

“Our focus on families is largely driven by our recognition of the trauma associated with homelessness to the children.

“There has been a lot of talk recently about the effect of childhood trauma on one’s capacity to function as an adult.

“There are few things more traumatic than being homeless for a child.”

Ms Cooper explained: “One example — trying to do homework when it’s dark by 5.30pm and you are in an abandoned building with no electricity.

“Or even if you’re bunking in with many other families and you are homeless in that context, the cramped conditions. and very often these folks don’t have electricity, make it very difficult to succeed at school, not to mention the mother’s struggle to keep clean clothes available to the children and the food you can afford is less and less nutritious the further down the economic spectrum you get.

“And of course, none of these women have any health insurance.”

Ms Cooper added: “It’s a hidden problem and only the agencies who are involved in direct delivery of service to this population have a handle on the magnitude of it.”

She explained: “From a Habitat perspective, I will get calls from someone living in a dwelling where the roof has been, let’s say, torn from the hurricane, this is what I’ve been getting in the past couple of weeks.

“When we investigate the situation, invariably we will discover that it is not just one family living in that derelict circumstance, but more than one, maybe two or even three families.

“If there are three families living in a derelict home, two of them are homeless, for all intents and purposes, and the third is living in an untenable situation.”

The severity of the problem led to a joint effort by the two charities to create a Transformational Living Centre for Families, which they plan to open next year.

Ms Cooper said: “We are aware of four families in the past six months that have had to leave Bermuda because they felt as though they could find a place to live in the UK.

“Sadly, that’s not always the case and we let them know that it’s not the panacea that sometimes people feel it is.

“However, the reality is that in some cases they are in such danger of losing their children because of their homelessness that it’s almost an escape.

“That’s very worrying because not one of those mothers wanted to leave her home country and every one of them would want to come home if she could find a place to live that she can afford.”

Ms Butterfield added that as well as expensive home rentals, parents were faced with the island’s high cost of living, which included “unsustainable” expenses for groceries.

She said she and Ms Cooper wanted to draw attention to the “national crisis” of homeless families in Bermuda.

Ms Butterfield added that the WRC was confronted every day with the need for housing for mothers, and sometimes their children, too.

She explained: “It could include an agency, a school, another helping service, a family member or a self-referral — someone who has to be out of a residence by a certain time.

“Or it could include someone coming in, looking you in the face with tear-filled eyes, saying ‘I do not want to sleep on the street one more night, can you help me?’”

Ms Butterfield added: “It’s not unusual to get calls from health facilities, from schools, from churches with people concerned about having the knowledge of a mother with children who don’t have any place to live.”

She and Ms Cooper explained that people who are homeless are often not on the streets, but could be sleeping in tents on the beach or in abandoned buildings, which raised further concerns over bad weather and vulnerability.

Both agreed that the “face” of homelessness had changed over the past decade to include more younger women and one of the biggest differences had been the number of people who had jobs either sleeping rough or waiting for assistance in food lines.

Ms Cooper added that homelessness in Bermuda was now worse than ever.

She said: “Bermuda’s economy, particularly as it impacts the bottom quartile of the population, is really struggling.

“The women that we serve would have in the past been housekeepers, waitresses, working in hotel laundries — those jobs are almost all gone, with a few exceptions.”

David Burt, the Premier, said in a ministerial statement released last week after he was ordered by the Speaker of the House of Assembly to stop reading it to MPs, that the 2020-21 Budget would include funding for services that help homeless people.

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Published Nov 21, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Nov 21, 2019 at 9:54 pm)

Homeless crisis a threat to children

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