Illustrations by George Heaven
Homelessness is a massive problem in Jamaica. As of 2015, the unemployment rate in the country was 13.2 percent among adults, and a staggering 38 percent among youth. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in January this year, the Jamaica Observer revealed a 26 percent rise in homelessness over the past three years. The problem is particularly prevalent amongst the country's LGBTQ community, who comprise at least 40 percent of the overall homeless youth population.
Jamaica is not known for its progressive views on queer issues. In 2006, Time magazine asked if the island was "the most homophobic place on Earth." In 2014, a Human Rights Watch report found that over half of respondents in Jamaica had experienced violence on the basis of their identified gender or sexuality. Reports of corrective rape and the mob murder of gender queer youth Dwayne Jones have also made the headlines in recent years. Across the 1990s, dancehall fast became one of Jamaica's biggest exports, but it has been well documented how many of the scene's biggest stars performed lyrics that openly incited homophobia. While in the 1970s and 1980s the gay rights movement operated much more freely (the country even had known gay clubs and visible LGBTQ space), today activists conduct clandestine operations and hold discreet gatherings as mounting homophobic sentiments pervade public discourse.
Back in 2014, VICE News covered a group of queer homeless youth in Kingston, colloquially referred to as the "Gully Queens." This was part of an outpouring of international concern over the country's queer homelessness problem. Despite widespread media attention in the wake of VICE News's report, the very same group of homeless youth are still on the streets, and the hoped-for improvements have not yet materialized.
Part of the reason LGBTQ communities are so neglected in Jamaica might be due to the fact that almost 70 percent of the country identifies as Christian. Amongst many of them, it is believed that acceptance of LGBTQ persons is akin to turning one's back on God.
On the other side of the fence, seeking help from within the LGBTQ community is complex. As part of the investigation for the new episode of the VICELAND series GAYCATION, which focuses on the current state of LGBTQ life in Jamaica, Yvonne McCalla-Sobers, a leading Jamaican human rights activist and co-founder of LGBTQ-friendly shelter Dwayne's House, tries to explain the mentality: "LGBT persons who are able to have well-paying jobs, drive high-end vehicles, live in gated communities, will have few issues of homophobia, and they want to keep it that way so that they don't have to pay much attention to our youth here," she said. "[It's] class prejudice mixed with why are you doing this to draw attention to us? To make us look bad? "
This is not necessarily to say that there is a lack of sympathy for the homeless youth across the board among the middle-class members of the LGBTQ community. Rather, as J-Flag, Jamaica's leading LGBTQ rights organization stated in its 2013 Annual Report: "The diversity of Jamaica's LGBT community has been masked by the advocacy and media narratives that have focused on victimhood, crime and violence, sex and HIV." Therefore, when choosing issues to campaign for year on year, the middle-class members of the LGBTQ rights movement may be wary that consistently prioritizing the cause of the homeless youth will present the rights movement as a single-issue platform.
According to Dane Lewis, director of J-Flag, one of the greatest barriers to providing shelter for the LGBTQ homeless youth is a lack of funding. NGOs seeking to alleviate the burdens of the queer homeless youth were, and still are, locked in ongoing negotiations with both the government and international agencies for financial support that would help them address the issue on the ground. They find themselves consistently overstretched and unable to provide anything more than stop-gap support.
"The reality is such a project requires a significant investment to run a program that has been envisioned and designed by the various stakeholders invested in the response to homelessness." Lewis said. "Despite submitting proposals to major development agencies, the response has not been favorable."
McCalla-Sobers and Lewis have been spearheading efforts to set up The Larry Chang Centre, an LGBT youth homeless shelter named after the pioneering founder of J-Flag. Though they are hopeful that this year they will receive the last leg of funding needed to make the shelter a reality, the country's pervasive homophobia will likely make finding staff willing to work for an LGBTQ organization, as well as keeping the premises safe, significant challenges.
Until that happens, there are other groups in the country stepping up to help. The National Anti-Discrimination Alliance (NADA) is a Jamaican organization "committed to protecting the rights and freedoms of all people regardless of social or cultural biases." They have provided LGBTQ-friendly safe houses and private shelters for the homeless since 2014. NADA is a small-scale operation, relying largely on the kindness of volunteers willing to open their homes for those in need. When that's not an option, the group will pool their resources and rent a residential property that can be run as a safe house. The shelters can only take on a few guests at a time and operate on a word of mouth basis, but nonetheless, NADA represents a small but significant victory in the struggle to provide shelter to displaced members of Jamaica's LGBTQ community.
Andrew Higgins, founder of NADA, believes that they have so far been able to avoid becoming a target of anti-LGBTQ groups by operating as a "non-discriminatory" organization rather than a "pro-LGBTQ" organization.
The fact still stands, though, that NADA's shelters are primarily aimed at people who are newly homeless, rather than those who have been living without shelter for several years. With a high occurrence of HIV and other medical problems within the long-term LGBTQ homeless community, as well as a high rate of unemployment and training, any shelter will have to provide more than just a roof in order to see the long-term homeless youth rejoin broader society. Therefore, for shelters like NADA's with limited funding, the best strategy is to focus energies on those who have just become homeless in the hope that they can prevent them from becoming homeless in the long-term.
For McCalla-Sobers, it is the fate of the youth population who have been homeless for some years now that she is trying to address once and for all.
"They've been traumatized. Re-traumatized. And traumatized ten times on top of that. People often speak about their behavior, and I'm not sure how I would act in their place." McCalla-Sobers says. "They have made it clear to me in the past; what they really want to do is leave this country."
As it becomes clear that even when provided with shelter many among the LGBTQ homeless youth have been displaced for so long that they believe it is impossible to ever feel at home again in their own country, the need to address their circumstances is more crucial than ever.
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