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Make poverty history

By Raffique Shah

IF there were tabloids at the time, two thousand and however many years ago, their editors would have delighted in the heart-rending story that would sell their newspapers, headlines screaming, "No room at the Inn!". The drop-head, "...woman gives birth in manger". The text might read, "A very pregnant Mary of Galilee, accompanied by her husband, Joseph, rode into Bethlehem last night on the family's ass and immediately sought accommodation because there were signs that Mary had gone into labour.

"A distraught Joseph told the Bethlehem Bulb that the keeper of the only inn in town turned him away, saying he had no room. 'Afterwards, as I pondered what to do, my wife now writhing in pain, I saw the keeper take in two drunken Romans ...clearly, he discriminated against us because we are Jews.' Joseph described how a humble farmer allowed them to stay in a manger where Mary later gave birth to a bouncing baby boy...."

Yesterday, as a little over one million people in this prosperous country prepared to celebrate Christmas, the Express headline read, "No place to sleep". The photograph on the front page showed a young mother and three lovely children. Their story, all too familiar, speaks of five of them (father employed) having occupied part of a family dwelling as they await a unit from the HDC (Housing Development Corporation) but being evicted upon the death of some relative, presumably the person who allowed them to stay there.

Now, they have no place to sleep. Which also means they have no place to cook, or wash, or shower or use toilet facilities. They probably remain underfed since the father would have to resort to buying cooked food, an expensive option. The children cannot attend school and their health is at risk. This is a family facing disintegration, maybe disaster. They will not celebrate Christmas. In fact, they will not celebrate any day; for them, every day brings agony.

The bigger tragedy in this story is that thousands more suffer similar or worse plights, invisible to most of us who manage to live normally. This woman, no doubt in desperation, went public with her woes in the hope that some public official, preferably someone from the HDC, would reach out and help her. In a way, she is lucky—her husband has a regular job. So once they can access affordable housing, they might be able to fend for themselves.

Other "sufferers" are not so lucky. Many are older people, retired and infirm, living in dire conditions, dependent on paltry Government pensions that could be challenging to access at times. Invariably, they also depend on a health system that is severely flawed. Many in this category held jobs and actually worked during their productive years. But with wages and salaries being what they were, they were unable to set aside anything substantial for their winter years. And the social security system is unforgiving: the maximum state benefits one is entitled to is $4,000 a month.

Then, there are large numbers of younger, able-bodied persons who cannot find jobs, or when they do, they are so underpaid they can barely put food on their tables. I am not referring here to the equally large number of people who seek jobs, not work, or who refuse to work, insisting on some unwritten right to Government handouts, or who use poverty as an excuse to commit crime. No, the law and society must find ways of dealing with such elements.

In the context of the theme of my column today, I refer to people who are willing to work hard, long hours, but who, at the end of the day or the week, can barely make ends meet. You know them—the reliable and honest household help who handles chores the working woman finds challenging; the young man, weed-wacker in hand, walking for miles to tend to people's lawns and yards; the gifted handyman who can repair or fix small problems at your home or business.

Such people, many of them categorised as "employed" when statistics are compiled, will never be able to build or own decent accommodation if they live for a hundred years—not based on their earnings. Indeed, given current property prices, most middle-income families do not qualify for mortgages to purchase houses on the open market. That is why so many desperate people are seeking Government housing. The units are comparatively cheap and of reasonable quality.

Problem is the number of applicants far exceeds the number of units available or due to come on stream. And the distribution system is flawed. The homeless woman mentioned at the start of my column said the family applied for HDC housing in 2004. I know of people who applied 20, 30 years ago, who are waiting, and who would likely never get keys to a house in their lifetime. But I have heard of others who applied yesterday and got units today—a nasty feature that has plagued Government housing throughout its existence.

No one expects that there would be any miraculous solution to the nation's housing problems, or to the wider, more serious problem of persistent poverty. Equally though, Government and the wider society cannot pretend that they do not exist and react only when cases crop up, especially at Christmas time. The many ills that beset the aged, the destitute, the infirm and the homeless won't disappear over the holidays or in the new year.

So as we splurge during the season of plenty, let us spare more than just a thought for those who will enjoy little or nothing, not even a roof over their heads or food in their stomachs. Let us resurrect a battle cry of yesteryear: make poverty history.

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