The pilot homeless shelter housed at apt 3, 4 Upper Musgrave Road (I wish I remember the dates, I am getting old will ask the gay community historian Howie Fulton, to back me up on the details of time etc) was expected to continue for 6 months, and funded by various donors, AMFAR, MOH, TIDES. I did not receive specific funding for the homeless shelter but rather looked at the existing funding we had in house and how I could use the funding and activities there in to support the pilot. No one would fund a shelter as there was no precedence, this was the first of its kind and there was no evidence that it would survive.
What was the thought and motivation behind doing the pilot:
The fact is, due to the high levels of homophobia in Jamaica, homelessness is almost always an eventuality for gay youth from as early as 11 years old. The situation affects both lesbians and gay men, however, due to the heavy resistance to homosexuality among men, they usually face the immediate physical issues and most visibly, ending up on the street. For the forgotten voice of Lesbians, homophobia is no less real, rather as always women suffer in silence, with homophobia being experienced in the form of rapes, forced relationship arrangements and in situations of homelessness, they usually end up at a female friends house or a male friends’ with whom they would usually have to engage in sex.
For me, there can really be no effective work aimed at truly finding the solutions to the core vulnerabilities both to HIV and LGBT issues, until we went right to the nucleus of it, and the nucleus is homelessness.
I spent a lot of time understanding the community, my working hours went straight up into midnight, at detriment of both my relationship and health, however to serve a community, you have to understand them and their issues. Homeless and sex working MSM would come by JASL and nights and we would just talk randomly, about their childhood, experiences on the street, many a times I was exposed to information that had me cringe, but I knew I could not do that openly and if I did, I would have to be quick to explain that I am in shock, so as to prevent them from feeling uncomfortable about sharing.
3 focus group sessions were convened with the guys, transcribed by another JASL staff member with the objective of collecting info about their experiences on their family life prior to being homeless; their experiences on the street; where they would like to see themselves in the future; what kind of solution they think would be best. The homeless guys were used to get participants to the programme, and they did this willingly. We offered shower and clothing and sometimes food.
Miraculously, the landlord at Upper Musgrave had a vacancy, a 3 bedroom space that is now JFLAG’s office, I spoke to her about the pilot programme and she was willing to rent it for $40,000 per month. AMFARs project had money for grants to gay people to support rental for 1st month, I decided to use that money to support the rental for the project for the 6 months. Giving a gay man who became homeless the first month’s rent is a real waste of time and unsustainable joke use of resources, usually, they are unemployed and can’t afford to pay rent; they lie through their teeth to get the funds; the reasons for them being homeless was not investigated.
At the time I was going ahead with the plan, I heard no vocal oppositions, now I look back at it, everyone went quiet, perhaps because i was so enthused about it, I never appropriately interpreted this quiet lack of active involvement in the process. I started on a rampage begging and partnership seeking: Food for the poor and Red Cross from beds and food; Ministry of Health for counseling services and medical care; and the community for every thing and buy-in.
The end product was a project officially and initially housing I believe 12 persons including one woman, who was picked up off the street by a concerned citizen with very advanced case of AIDS and at the point of dying. I remember her with a huge smile on my face, as although I know the policy was not to house people at the office, I hid Candy at JASL and within 3 days of interacting with people, eating, smiling and being hugged despite her sores, one could hardly believe she was the same person, almost dead, that was brought in just days ago. Our tenancy began, we had mattresses to put on the floors and beds, a doctor was in place, and they were all screened. I want to make it clear that HIV + status was not a requirement for entry to the programme but over 90% of the participants to the programme were HIV + and with some with more than one opportunistic infection, their health situation was traumatic for both the doctor and I, almost all were put on ARV and other treatment immediately, and with of course as much privacy as we could manage, with the nurse keeping and administering the medication. Many were at different stages of denial, as well as displaying mental and psychological issues, our counselors were Sharlene Jarrett from the National Programme and the late and amazing Howard Daley. Mrs. Jarrett was employed to the National HIV Programme as Monitoring and Evaluation specialist but also did counseling, she agreed to do it free of charge. Howard Daley was one of the brave 5 that started JASL in the first place and it was an honour to meet someone like him, his fees were supported by AMFAR, and he conducted the group counseling sessions.
Remedial classes were supported through the Global Fund project, and provided tutoring in Spanish, Mathematics, English and Computing, all delivered by LGBT teachers. I included spanish as learning a second language would also expose them to another culture, many had only dreamt of cultures outside of Jamaica, and learning spanish was one other attempt to distract them from Jamaican culture and plant hope-seeds that situations can be different.
They all had strong interests in performing arts and an LGBT dancer was also brought in to do tutoring under another dream project of mine, I was hoping to develop and demonstrate using the Pilot Project was Phoenix Rise, a LGBT performing arts and behaviour change programme. Of course there were behavioural issues, arguments and verbal fights, the behaviour change process had just begun, giving someone food, clothing and shelter does not immediately convert them to angels, when they have had to develop demons to address the harshness of their realities. Respectful dialogue was the method I used to address issues, they are used to the language of aggression, they have no respect for life or anything, speaking aggressively to them would only cause an even bigger flair up in an effort to protect themselves, and it worked each time, there was a rules list and sanctions for repeat offenders. Other gay men who had experienced homelessness, rallied around the project, providing support such as food, aiding in quelling issues, not sure how but if there were any issues, they were first on scene.
Let me be clear, whilst the shelter was the first attempt at providing/testing a structured solution to homelessness, the community has itself been dealing with its own homelessness issues on smaller scales. There were interesting family models created that I did not see anywhere else in my research on homelessness, Gareth, Macy, Spencer and a whole lot others were already housing and caring for gay men. This is the model that ultimately I was working on providing a justification for supporting. In behaviour change and social development, we cannot avoid looking at the natural solutions that are developing in response to our problems, these must be understood and supported with structure and technical help. The gay mommys and daddys needed parental training, support group sessions, and a small financial contribution to support them in being the solution they already were to homelessness. This model would solve a few issues, not least of which is the cost and unsustainability of providing a one shelter for homelessness: the families already existed and had food, clothing, bedding etc set up to support the homeless. Providing a place for board, showers and sleep is not what this community needs to solve homelessness and the desperation of it, what is needed is a re-entry into a FAMILY, who cared about who they are and what they do, who held them accountable and who loved them.
When I was asked to pull the programme before its maturity period, I was devastated and heart broken. I resigned from my post as Executive Director, knowing the core vulnerabilities of our work, I could not continue ignoring and working like I didn’t see them, it would be labouring in vain, attending meetings in luxurious hotels, traveling to exotic places and coming home to cut my eyes at the core nucleus of HIV and LGBT issues, I personally could not live with myself. I had to take a very long break, having suffered a nervous breakdown, being suicidal and having been diagnosed with severe depression, I was mentally unstable for about 2 years after the experience as I learnt the hard way, that not everything is always as it seems.