The number of people seeking a free lunch reached a peak in recent months when the number of coronavirus cases spiked, according to Caritas Malta director Anthony Gatt.

Meanwhile, the number of people turning to emergency shelters was at an all-time low for a range of factors – including coronavirus-related fears of living in an emergency shelter and restricted access due to quarantine and health requirements, he said.

“The free lunch service is at its peak with around 55 meals per day compared to an average of 40 daily meals in April,” Gatt explained, adding that the free lunch for people in need was offered at Dar Papa Franġisku in Birkirkara – one of two homeless shelters run by Fondazzjoni Dar il-Hena – a collaboration between Caritas Malta, the Family Ministry and The Alfred Mizzi Foundation.

This increase in numbers can be attributed to people seeking support after losing their jobs or having their income reduced due to the pandemic. Another contributing factor was that the service was better known, he said adding that emergency shelters were facing a new phenomenon with numbers dropping.

Emergency shelters

“Towards the end of 2019, we were noticing a decline in the number of people seeking assistance of the emergency shelters, especially with regards to women. With the emergence of the coronavirus situation restriction on admissions throughout the social care sector – including other homeless shelters, drug rehabilitation programmes and Mount Carmel psychiatric hospital – meant that homeless people experiencing some form of social problem had fewer institutions to turn to,” he said.

Since June we are faced with a new scenario

However, at the same time, the social sector was getting organised with offering quarantine centres for those seeking admission to a rehabilitation programme. With the COVID-19 numbers getting under control in June, the situation took a positive turn and access to shelters improved.

“Since June we are faced with a new scenario. The number of people seeking assistance of emergency shelters has been at its lowest since the opening of the shelters in 2016,” he said, adding that this could be attributed to various factors that include coronavirus-related fears of living in an emergency shelter.

Other factors included the continuation of housing schemes for the vulnerable; increasing pressure on authorities to have perpetrators of domestic violence leave the home instead of the victims, landlords reducing rents and the availability of lower prices in the rental market.

“Administrative requirements, such as expecting people entering shelters to take a swab test, may have at times served to reduce accessibility for persons living a chaotic life,” he said.

Another contributing factor was a drop in the number of foreigners – as many sought repatriation during the pandemic.

While pre-COVID the trend tended to be 70% foreign and 30% Maltese, the current trend of the last three months is 50% foreign and 50% Maltese.

Gatt stressed that this drop in numbers did not mean that there were fewer social problems.

“There’s also a reality of those who might not be roofless but living in precarious situations, sitting in with family and friends after a separation, elderly people who had to move out of a low rental property due to not being able to afford higher rent, and people who have lost their job or had a big cut in their income due to COVID-19.”

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