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Homeless centre will cost $4m

Major Frank Pittman from the Salvation Army (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Refitting the old Bishop Spencer School as a fully equipped centre for Bermuda’s homeless would require $4 million, according to Major Frank Pittman, Bermuda’s Salvation Army divisional commander.

But the replacement for the charity’s dilapidated facility “will not be, by any stretch of the imagination, just a shelter”, Major Pittman told a forum on homelessness.

The existing shelter, built in 1982 as a temporary fix, falls far short of expected standards. Walls are “falling apart” in one section, which forced the Salvation Army to find space for eight residents. Bishop Spencer School was given to the charity for an annual $1 peppercorn rent in February.

A new facility would fulfil the vision of a “pathway to hope”, with transitional housing, life-skills training and basic health services. It would have at least 55 emergency beds and 12 individual one-room transitional apartments for those without homes to help them eventually move back into the community.

Major Pittman’s remarks came as Dale Butler, the former Minister of Culture and Rehabilitation, told The Royal Gazette that Bermuda could not avoid having to “bite that bullet”.

Some balked at the new shelter’s $4 million pricetag as Major Pittman addressed the audience for Mr Butler’s documentary on homeless. But Mr Butler said the cost was not as high as it seemed.

The Chamber of Commerce has offered its services in an effort to help, he said.

“There is a discussion of closing one or two of our schools that are underused,” he added. “If we could make that difficult decision and convince the country to repurpose them, the buildings could be used for the transitional housing that the Salvation Army needs. We as a society have got to find somewhere.”

The inability to meet rents was a significant contributor to homelessness, the audience heard at the screening of Out among the Ins, a 2009 film investigation of homelessness.

“There was a time when we had room houses where the costs were reasonable, which assisted the owner of the house — the bedrooms of these young men were immaculate,” Mr Butler recalled.

As minister, Mr Butler said he had been challenged by former premier Ewart Brown to develop “a comprehensive strategy” for Bermuda’s homeless.

“Dr Brown did not want a facility were people were going to be there for life. People would graduate into one-bedroom accommodation, which the Government at the time was looking at building.”

At present, the shelter off Marsh Lane in Pembroke houses 37 people, four of whom are women, with ages ranging from 21 to 77.

“A high number of individuals have not held traditional jobs in quite some time,” said Calvin Ming, the Salvation Army’s director of public relations and development.

“We also have clients who collect pensions or who are on disability support.”

Times spent at the shelter range from “just under a month, up until four years”.

“Why are they there? for various reasons. Their families could say there’s no more room for them, or there is not enough money to pay the rent. There are endless reasons.”

Before attending the documentary, Mr Ming said he had asked shelter residents how they wished to be represented to the people of Bermuda.

“They said, ‘remind them never to forget about the less fortunate — we are people too’.”