The first time I met Jennie (not her real name), she was the picture of all-American wholesomeness, the kind of girl who looked like she was raised near the cornfields of Iowa or flew in fresh from the cheese belt of Wisconsin. Long, dark hair with sun streaks running through it, bright, light brown eyes, full of life and anticipation. I’d guess her age to be in her late 20s.
Normally I would not recall such details if it weren’t for what happened to her afterward.
Jennie, on vacation on a Family Island, met someone, devilishly enticing, physically magnetic, a man who cut a figure as dangerous as it was romantic. She ignored the dangerous and fell head over every sensible bone in her heels in love and in lust. There would be no turning back. She relinquished whatever job she had as a writer, gave herself over to the beach and the body, and just stayed put on that island where we first met.
The next time I saw her, she sat in front of me at my desk, asking for a job. There was nothing I could offer her except advice which she did not want.
The romance was falling apart and so was she.
The drugs Lover Boy turned her onto had begun to take their toll. For the next year or two, she lived hand to mouth in Nassau, first hanging out with party society types, later with anyone who could supply a high.
Jennie never went back home. She died on the street, clutching a Wendy’s ketchup packet, one of the many she had found in dumpsters and licked to stay alive in her final days.
Jennie’s story is heart-breaking, but it also reveals the strong pull of a drug-begotten fast-spinning, downward spiral that crashes with someone living on the street. Homelessness, it’s called in most places. In the U.S more than 550,000 people are considered homeless. Four out of every 10 are black, three times what it should be with a 13 percent African-American population. Thirty three percent of the homeless population are families with children. Seven percent are veterans. In the US the number one ‘cause’ of homelessness is family violence, those who either move out to escape it or are kicked out to stop it.
But in The Bahamas where family is tolerant almost to a fault or too often turns a blind eye to violence and incest, the root of homelessness is a different story. It is driven less by pushed out and more by dragged down and out. Change one letter, the ‘m’ for a ‘p’ and the relationship between the two is clear as shining glass.
There are some, including at least one in a formerly high political office, who deny homelessness exists at all.
They have not seen the woman with her two children sleeping in a car, moving it between locations on Blue Hill Road.
They did not meet the man who used to bring me his tightly scribbled, though possibly genius, writings on scraps of whatever paper he could find. He refused to give up his outdoor ‘residence’ on a wall near the Starbuck’s at Harbour Bay, even though Social Services offered him a roof over his head at a home for the aged. Why, he wondered, would he want to be confined? “How dare they?” he asked me, not knowing I was the one who called and pleaded with them to find a safe place for him.
What happened to the man who slept in the Eastern Cemetery years ago and was accused of arson and property destruction for disturbing grave sites and burning branches to stay warm in winter?
We know so little about homelessness in The Bahamas. We can predict that it will increase as joblessness does. We can survey Jonesers living in abandoned vehicles and ask what they did before they got hooked on weed or crack, before when what they owed ‘the man’ was more than they could pay, and they lost everything. Even if we learn the answers of what happened in every case before that man or woman ended up on a park bench, in a cemetery or under a tree, what are we prepared to do about it?
We know a man who started feeding the homeless with bread he baked himself from a van with the words Jesus Loves You long before he began feeding crowds through the Bahamas Feeding Network. But for most of us, the homeless are merely people we pass as we go about our daily business. They do not tear at our heartstrings like they would if we were in a freezing climate and they were sleeping huddled together wrapped in plastic and newsprint under a bridge for warmth.
We get lulled into thinking that if Potcake is okay living on the streets and napping on the wall on Church Street near St. Matthew’s Church, homelessness can’t be all that bad.
Thanks to Sebastian Major, who was nine when he did this interview as part of a school report on homelessness, even for someone like the street philosopher Potcake who could be the poster figure for homelessness in The Bahamas, there is nothing easy about being without a roof over your head.
In the words of Locksley Thompson, Potcake’s real name, homelessness is real and it hurts. He understands what breeds it. “A lot people can’t function. A lot of people lose hope. A lot of people lose their homes. A lot of people lose their minds.” He also knows the conditions firsthand.
“Out here when it rains and it’s cold and you hungry, it’s a miserable feeling.”
He also gets the political optics. “When someone important comes like the Queen, the police, they come and take everyone off the streets and put us up… at Sandilands. Government don’t want to see no dirty people on the side of Bay Street or in the parks and when the Queen leaves, they let us come back out.”
Homelessness – it’s bitter in The Bahamas.
I thought of all this reading last week how police had charged a homeless man with violating the curfew.
For God's sake...