photo: Tim van Dijk

PHILIPSBURG – Homeless people are experiencing greater health risks and some claim less assistance is available to them as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge.

A recent report into Covid-19 in the Caribbean by the United Nations expresses concerns that ‘Homeless people are overexposed to the risk of contracting COVID-19 because of their lack of housing, food and access to health-care services.’

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By Tim van Dijk

There are a number of housing facilities on the island that work to provide a roof over the heads of the most vulnerable. Safe Haven is funded by the government and St Maarten Development Foundation and offers shelter for vulnerable women and their children. It has a strict policy to only accommodate victims of domestic violence and abuse.

Care coordinator Shelley Gordon finds there have been more homeless women seeking help from them since the Covid-19 lock-downs began.

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Safe Haven Director, Vanessa Fraser went on to explain that the organisation is assisting an increasing number of women who are unemployed due to the pandemic. This means the organisation is under increased financial pressure to deliver medical to aid the physical and mental health of Safe Haven’s clients.

Vanessa Fraser

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Without organisations such as these, and NGOs including the Red Cross and Freegan Food Foundation many homeless people would go hungry. These organisations provide one hot meal per day. Red Cross worker Sandra Brooks noted that the number homeless people she has been delivering meals to has also increased month on month.

The Dr.J Foundation Crisis Shelter has been offering beds to people facing housing issues since 2016. Their Transitional Shelter is subsidized by the government and houses anyone in a critical living situation. This includes legal St Maarten residents aged over 18 with no mental health or substance abuse issues. With the help of social workers, the shelter aims to reintegrate people back into the community ideally within 3 months. Dr Arndel believes the government is more receptive, conscious and sensitive to issues of homelessness and is catering to the needs of these people in crisis.

Dr. Arndel

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Suelayne says she has been on the streets since the start of the pandemic when she lost her job. She claims she has found it increasingly difficult to access government services and obtain medication she needs because of her situation.

The Department of Social Protection is tasked with creating policy to protect vulnerable groups including the homeless. In response to the sudden drop in worker and household incomes caused by the pandemic, a COVID-19 specific Unemployment Support Program was introduced which offers ANG 1150 to those with a valid local bank account who can prove they lost their job due to Covid-19. These requirements mean that for some rough sleepers, this help is inaccessible to them.

The Ministry of VSA has predicted as many as 5,000 St Maarten citizens losing their jobs due to the virus. CPS has identified around 15 new COVID-19 cases per day, an increase of three times St Maarten’s average number of daily cases seen at the start of the outbreak. As more and more businesses close down and jobs are lost, the opportunity to find work and to escape the cycle of homelessness becomes increasingly difficult.