SIX years ago this month, Express writer Richard Charan spent a day and night living on the streets of San Fernando as a homeless person, then wrote a series of articles regarding his observations.
It was prompted by regular but unreported death on the streets of the city of the underclass, and particularly by the searing story of drug-addicted mom Cynthia Ramcharan, who died, folded into the shopping cart that was her home in those final months. The purpose of the social experiment was to help citizens consider, on a deeper level and with a new perspective, how people viewed this underclass, and how far someone had to fall to shed all self-respect and accept a life less human.
All it took for Charan to vanish into the city’s homeless population was an unkempt beard and change into ragged clothing, to suddenly to become a thing to avoid, and scorn by “normal” people, but also to be accepted and protected by the untouchables living unseen, but in full view.
Many plans and promises have been made by the politicians since then about how to solve this complex problem linked to criminality, terminal disease, unaffordable housing, end-stage drug addiction, mental illness, and domestic issues. There have been midnight snatches by police, court cases for loitering, St Ann’s Hospital referrals, and stakeholder consultations (minus the homeless), with rehabilitation centres opening and appeals to the empathetic to stop fattening up the street dwellers with curb-side free food.
Last week, the Express went in search of the homeless people Charan met that day in San Fernando, to find out if the State’s well funded Social Displacement Unit had intervened and given them a chance. This is what was found. -
HARRIS Promenade has been reclaimed from the homeless. It happened in the finals months of the mayorship of Dr Navi Muradali, before he and just about all of the Congress of the People politicians were booted from city office.
Muradali had started a project where homeless were identified, assessed, and an attempt made to unite them with lost families, or to become clients of the Court Shamrock halfway house, with funding expected to come from area businesses. This while police patrolled the promenade, and arrested sleepers for loitering.
The success of the programme is questionable, since the homeless mostly packed and moved to side streets, and those who made it home were replaced by other indigents escaping the crackdown in Port of Spain. The new mayor Kazim Hosein — whose first task was to go meet with the socially displaced — is yet to roll out his plan.
However, there was a period in the last decade, where Harris Promenade existed as a place apart, with its own resident population, rules for visitors and punishment for law-breakers.
Presiding over the arrangement was Sylvester, then 65 years old and the eldest among a group of promenade people who all looked aged. If Sylvester said so, you could join the group sitting at the feet of the statue of Marcus Garvey, where the street lamps shone all night, and where there were no dark spots that could get you robbed, killed or molested.
The dangerously insane — prone to unprovoked violence — Sylvester instructed to keep walking. There is a purpose to this. Even the homeless want peace and security and the good samaritans bringing a night-time meal would not come if there could be trouble. There are limits to brotherly love.
But Sylvester welcomed Charan to the inner circle. Here was the man who cared for Cynthia Ramcharan in that shopping cart before her death on Mother’s Day 2008. Two years before, the house he owned in Sea Lots burned.
Cynthia was his companion then. She woke him and saved his life, he said. So he vowed never to leave her. It turned out that Cythnia, her final years a drug addict and prostitute, was a mother, beaten out of her home near Williamsville, and to a life that ended at age 38.
And when the free meals came, he shared. hops and chow mein, stewed chicken with rice. And to the gospel music from his transistor radio, the group ate — among them Mastana, the only woman in the lot, still proud and proper, carrying a handbag in the crook of the arm, containing a bottle of Bay Rum. And Tall Man who spent many days across the road from the St Paul’s Anglican Church, beseeching the Jesus on the Cross bolted to the steeple, to deliver him.
Long, the man from Rancho Quemado. Ben, who lived for 20 years in New York, the city of dreams, before a broken marriage and other unspoken things drove him from wife and children, never to acknowledge them ever again.
Eddie, moving about with his cardboard box and singing his own compositions, almost as old as Sylvester. The one-arm man. The pitiless Vernon, waiting for the streets to empty before prowling for a victim. And “Mad Man”, known by many in the city as the homeless person immortalised in the David Rudder classic “A Madman’s Rant”.
The Express found “Mad Man” last week, living out of his cardboard home in a burnt-out section of a building near the old railway terminal, now balding head covered in scars, his extreme mental illness leaving him unable to carry on a conversation.
He is luckier than “One arm”, who died defenceless on February 2009, at High Street. Someone had almost completely chopped off his left leg during the night.
Mastana, she died in 2010, a few days after her homeless friends found her unconscious on the promenade, around the same time another homeless man (East Indian, seven feet five inches tall, the police said) died at the corner of Lord and Mucurapo streets one Sunday morning. No relative ever claimed those bodies.
Eddie died near the old steam locomotive near the Carnegie Free Library, next to his cardboard box. His body was discovered first thing Monday morning in February 2011.
Long, who found himself living out of the old Norweigan Seamen’s building at Lady Hailes Avenue, ended up murder victim number 36 this year, knifed to death in a fight over the ownership of a cardboard bed. Tall Man has vanished. Vernon is still on the streets, still dangerous. There would be no redemption for these people.
Sylvester will not die on the streets. It turns out that this once homeless king is the father of at least eight. A daughter living in St Vincent came looking for him about two years ago. She took him home.