“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Mahatma Ghandi
Homelessness is defined in the US laws as a person who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate night time residence; or a temporary night time residence that is a privately or publicly supervised shelter; or any night time residence used as a temporary living accommodation; or a person using an institution providing temporary residence awaiting institutionalization; or a person who sleeps in facilities public or private not intended for those purposes. The places the homeless normally sleeps are the street, cars, buses, trains, public building, parks, bridges, abandoned buildings or substandard buildings battling natural elements, predators and disease. Homelessness impact the lives of adults and children equally; causes dyfunctional environments for children, increase crime rates, increase illness and it is a human rights crisis.
There are many reasons cited for homelessness according to the National Coalition for the homeless. It includes, foreclosure, poverty, no work opportunities, no public assistance, lack of housing, declining health, domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness.
Belize City has a major homeless problem. It is a problem that occurs in plain sight and for many years, a problem that recurs without any permanent solutions. Some charities exists that provide temporary relief to the homeless, provide meals, limited spaces to sleep and clothing. However with a growing world recession, increases in oil prices, declining opportunities, Belize city, where the problems seem most prevalent, has turned into a city of blight and degradation.
As a Christian nation we are failing to follow the teachings of the Bible that mentions poverty many more times than it mentions homosexuality. It seems that Jesus, Leviticus, Luke, Mathew, Isaiah, Proverbs were crystal clear and adamant on the duty of the Christian to help the poor. Remember that story Jesus told about ignoring him when you ignore a fellow man in need? All the Biblical teachings tell us to act with kindness towards the poor and actively solve their plight. Additionally, Belize is a signatory to the Declaration of Human Rights for the UN, we are bounded as a society to treat our fellow man with dignity and worth. Finally, just being a fellow member of the human race we ought to extend a hand, and help solve issues for our fellow human beings, especially in their lowest , most vulnerable and seemingly helpless moments of their lives.
With that said, I must admit that I too am guilty of not adhering to the Bible, human rights convention or fellow humanity arm of extension lecture above. I recognize my past inability to empathize with the homeless even though the problem is palpable. I have donated money to the homeless effort, given clothes or otherwise performed the very basic duties, however, I have been rather oblivious to the everyday conditions of the homeless; I have tacitly accepted their condition as a part of societal problem, not my problem approach and maybe cast a judgmental excuse, thinking homelessness is a self made condition.
My first experience with the homeless was through my teacher Mrs. Galvez (Fonseca) at St. John’s College Sixth Form. We had a group project to interview members of the homeless and present our findings to the class. It was not the violent Belize City of today and we felt comfortable interviewing homeless people at night to delve into their condition. Many had families, but also seemed to suffer from mental illness or other conditions such as drug abuse. One member of our group interviewed a family member who expressed helplessness because of their inability to cure the situation of their loved one. We completed an effective presentation and after the project was over, went back to our normal lives. I continued along my day avoiding contact or exposure to the homeless. It was not my problem and I did not want to see it.
Just around Christmas time each year though ,with highlights of Mary and Joseph seeking an Inn to sleep at night, as she suffers in labour with Baby Jesus and after being turned away in her most fragile condition, she is eventually made to deliver and sleep in a barn with animals. The story must subconsciously affect our sense of duty to provide temporary food and clothes and shelter for the homeless. The goodwill becomes alive with drives and collections that ultimately solves nothing. Once the season is over, we go back to our normal lives, having done our regimented and less involved duty as a Christian or humanitarian with a sense of accomplishment and a boost in our sense of empowerment knowing that our condition is not as bad after all.
Recently the mayor of Belize City made a revolutionary suggestion and even welcomed ideas to address the homeless situation in Belize City. The idea is revolutionary because I don’t think anyone was thinking about the homeless. Certainly not me. I forgot they even existed, even though they exist in plain sight. This seems to be the first real attempt by any public official to take on the issues of homelessness. No quicker than the idea was expressed, out of the woodworks jump the “why we should not do it, why it can’t work and why I won’t support it” people, even though they offer absolutely no alternative solutions of their own. The argument is that people’s civil rights will be violated and it will become a crime to be homeless. Well technically, homelessness is a crime in Belize and is not addressed as a plight of the poor in our laws but rather a nuisance. It it is defined in our laws, exactly how we treat homelessness, as a nuisance we prefer not to see.
I don’t know if many Belizeans are aware that Belize City continues to be rated poorly by tourists. I have had friends who have visited on cruises and were shocked at our level of poverty in Belize City. Hearing it offends my every being, but many times that is how we are when confronted with the truth. When we become actively blind to poverty and homelessness and have subjectively focused on the good, an innate guilt exists when someone else points out what we fail to see. We have allowed our fellow citizens to deteriorate to a level where their lives are treated with less regard than an animal.
My hope is that the dilemma of homelessness will be carried out with as much humanitarian effort as possible. My hope is that we will be able to rehabilitate the homeless into functioning and productive members of society. My hope is that we can can put politics aside and support real solutions. We continue to profess our love for Belize, well loving Belize includes the people who make up the country of Belize. We need to uplift our city and become vigilant , active, solution-seeking, members ensuring poverty does not become a demeaning human rights crisis. We are a small nation of very intelligent, caring, capable and resourceful people. We are our own heroes.