Every day for the past two years Ramona Vassallo has dreaded sunset, knowing that together with her dog Bucky she will have to spend the night outside.

She has been verbally assaulted, spat at, and beaten up, and when she found an abandoned building where she could “hide at night”, she was evicted and fined €4,000 – a sum that could throw her back into prison if she is unable to pay.

“I spend the night praying for the sun to come up. I’ve been through a lot in life, but homelessness has totally broken me. The streets are not safe for women. I’ve been beaten so many times.

Ramona Vassallo lets us into her world. Video: Karl Andrew Micallef

“One person beat me with a bottle… when you sleep rough, you’re not valued as a person.”

The challenges of being homeless in Malta

Several people who, like Ramona, are homeless, cannot apply for facilities such as an Identity Card, a bus card, a bank account, a mortgage, social benefits or housing because to do so one needs a permanent address.

And if they manage to find a place in a temporary shelter, they could end up roofless once they turn 60, because technically, they should then be able to be housed in a home for the elderly. But the waiting lists for such homes are long and they have to sleep outdoors in the meantime, a spokesperson for YMCA told Times of Malta.

Even telephone boxes are being kept locked so that people don’t sleep in them

Finding a safe place to sleep outdoors is becoming increasingly difficult, with homeless people saying that benches in gardens where they seek refuge are deliberately being removed.

“Even telephone boxes are being kept locked so that people don’t sleep in them… so we cannot even shelter from the rain in a telephone box. Police officers keep asking us to vacate public places as it’s illegal to lead a vagabond life. As if sleeping outside is something someone chooses to do for pleasure,” Ramona says.

The 52-year-old recently addressed a conference about social justice in parliament. She is one of the people who seeks support from a YMCA drop-in centre in Ħamrun, which opened its doors to homeless people nine months ago.

The number of people who seek support there – a place where they can also wash their clothes, have a snack and open up to social workers – has increased from between 10 to 15 people a day in the first month to between 40 and 50 clients every day.

Ramona is currently the only known roofless woman in Malta, having been unable to find a shelter that would also accept Bucky – a dog that “found” her when she became homeless overnight.

“I didn’t mean to get attached to Bucky, but I did. Bucky found me after years of drug abuse and periods in jail. He found me after I had part of my stomach removed and wasn’t eating or walking. We ate together and walked a lot.

“Throughout my life, I had always felt alone and never had any real support. Bucky is the first one who loved me as I am. He gave me a reason to get back on my feet and stay clean.”

Ramona says that sometimes she collects empty plastic bottles or cans to exchange them for money to be able to feed Bucky, facing verbal abuse by passers-by who see her collect the containers.

“I’ve been asked to give up Bucky so that I can sleep at a shelter. But I cannot do it. He’s my everything. He’s my family.”

Ramona, who is unable to work because of disability issues, spends the little money she has on food.

To make things more complicated for her, when she tried seeking work or a place to rent, she was turned down because her police conduct is not clean.

A spokesperson for YMCA suggested reviewing the conduct of people with a troubled past on a case-by-case basis. Some people had paid the consequences for their actions – including through jail sentences and drug rehabilitation programmes – and should not be condemned for life.

“I don’t have a clean police conduct, but people don’t even try to get to know me. I abused drugs from a very young age. It was a way for me to escape reality, but I went through hell as a result. I’ve been in and out of prison, and now have nothing to my name,” Ramona adds.

“My appeal to people is to try understand where a person is coming from. Get to know the person. I’m not proud of my past, but I really need a break and I’m trying my best.”

The YMCA spokesperson told Times of Malta there should be a temporary place for homeless people who are discharged from hospital, prison, or a rehabilitation centre where they can stay for a year or so to get back on their feet. This was especially needed for women, many of whom did not end up roofless as they sought shelter with people who might have abused them in the past.

One can support YMCA with their time or money. One can donate via Revolut (BIC: REVOLT21; IBAN: LT 6132 5001 9883 319 222); SMS (to donate €4.66 send a blank message to 5061 8088 and to donate €11.65 send a blank message to 5061 9212); or by calling 5170 2068 for a donation of €15, 5180 2007 for a donation of €25 or 5190 2073 for a donation of €50. One can also donate via Mobile Pay on 7955 0065. Log onto https://ymcamalta.org/ for more information on other ways to donate.

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