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Turning the Bermuda blind eye to those less fortunate

If you cast your memory back to January of this year, there's every chance you will recall the Hamilton Deputy Mayor addressing the 'vagrants' issue in a public and provocative forum.

To refresh you, here's what was said and reported in the newspaper by the now former Deputy Glen Smith ...“Everyone who resides in or visits the City of Hamilton should be able to go about their business feeling safe at all times. Unfortunately, vagrancy is on the increase, perhaps due to the economic times.

“Constituents are saying they are seeing an increased number of vagrants. This is a particular concern for women and children who can feel threatened. We have heard the same from members of our restaurant sector, who tell us that vagrants are sitting outside restaurants and shops harassing patrons.”

Mr Smith went on to add that on a recent jog he noticed 15 people sleeping in doorways. “The issue has become so widespread that I fear we are beginning to accept it as being normal.”

Now, it's that last sentence of his that intrigues me ... on three levels. Firstly, by and large, Bermuda HAS turned a blind eye to vagrants or the homeless or the helpless sleeping wherever they can and begging from others. I noticed this firsthand last Sunday night when I went over to a man, unconscious on Victoria Street, lying directly across from the Police Station. He was there for at least two hours as I saw him at 5pm and then again at 7.30pm! Read that again yes it's true the Police Station for goodness sake! I hovered over him to see if he was breathing. When I saw that he was, I then walked away. I had my seven-year-old daughter and wife with me at the time. But while on the street watching him, I saw two cops walk close by, cross the street and enter the main building. They turned a Bermuda blind eye.

Is it just me or does that have a familiar ring to it? Does that not sound remarkably like, in part anyway, the story of the Good Samaritan? It is only with the heart that we can see what is right; because what is essential or necessary, often is invisible to the eye apparently to some members of the Bermuda Police Service. But wait ... did they do anything wrong in letting him sleep there? Is vagrancy, or sleeping on the sidewalk, actually a crime?

Maybe to Deputy Mayor Smith it was because it is such an ugly offence. Maybe being too poor means we do need to cull those types from the street. You know what he's thinking, for purposes of aesthetics especially in tourist season. Again, that sounds remarkably like the Good Samaritan parable as told by Jesus, who, it could be argued lived on the street for much of his ministry and for all intents and purposes, like a modern day vagrant! Imagine that, Jesus was a vagrant. Why not? He had no home to speak of, he was dirty and dusty often, long haired, and quite possibly, more than likely actually ... he constantly sported an unpleasant body odour.

“Arghh, the difference there however,” claimed my earnest friend the Reverend Cal Stone of the Wesley Methodist Church in Hamilton, “Jesus chose to be like that. He ministered as an itinerant without a base, but he did avail himself of hospitality when he could staying with his family like James and John and others when offered. Plus, without modern day public transport, that's how he got around to all those towns. But he did have to live outside on occasions.”

Coincidentally, when I called Rev Cal, and mentioned the Victoria Street sleeper, he too had that very day seen the man in this photo lying asleep or stoned or unconscious, on the footpath opposite the Police Station in town. “I did, yes, and I thought the police would see to him. After all they are paid to look after the community's best interest, to protect and serve, and they are better equipped than us to do so.” And he added, “They are there for all of us, the homeless too, and this may well be a lesson for everyone to look at. Everyone turned away from this man lying in the street. Everyone ... did you wake him and give him food and a place to rest?” That was directed at me and the answer is ... no I did not.

There was not even a stirring in me, I hate to admit, to love and help this man as if he were myself. Which is how the Good Samaritan story all started. Jesus told those listening that day that they all had to love the Lord their God with all their heart ... and they had to love thy neighbour as thyself ... which is where we get that beautiful but rarely utilised quote from.

He then told them all the story: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, another man, when he came to the place and saw him. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was and when he saw him, he took pity on him and helped him.”

Was the priest last Sunday Rev Cal? Was the other man me? Or was the Bermuda Police Service all of us combined?

Hmmm ... vagrancy, with its appearance that it is a wrong doing, actually isn't a crime so do we have the right to just sweep them all out of sight or turn our backs on them should they be hurting?

I used to think the Deputy Mayor was correct in wanting to rid the streets, especially Front Street, of these needy types ... but after seeing this man last Sunday and answering my daughter's question about why he was there.....I'm now not so sure. Incidentally, I told her he was very tired and just wanted to sleep right away where he was.

I feel rather ashamed in hindsight that I did not wake him to see if he needed further help ... or in fact if he needed anything at all. He may very well have been deliciously content to be sleeping there at 7.30pm, blissfully unaware anyone was passing by. In which case this whole story is baseless and the cops who strode past seeing him and leaving him there, have no case to answer.

None of us will ever know now as the moment to help/see has passed. But what is obvious is that vagrancy has reached the level of nonchalance in Bermuda even within our own Police Service.

It's a far cry from loving your neighbour.

I have a very strong feeling now that the opposite of love is not hate, it's apathy. It's not giving a damn.

* Ric Chapman is the Executive producer for Songopoly TV. Let him know if you've seen any other strange happenings. Email him at songopoly[AT]gmail.com

A man, unconscious on Victoria Street, lying directly across from the Police Station

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Published March 28, 2012 at 2:00 am (Updated March 28, 2012 at 9:10 am)

Turning the Bermuda blind eye to those less fortunate

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