When 70-year-old Frankie* moved out of the homeless shelter where he lived for several months, a teenage boy who lived there burst into tears. He was losing a grandfather figure – who was once a stranger – but who he had grown to love in the place they called home.

Frankie and Mark*, the teenager, came from very different backgrounds. Frankie ended up living in a YMCA-run shelter for the homeless after he separated from his wife and had nowhere to go.

Mark moved into the same shelter with his family when his father lost his job and could no longer afford rent.

“‘You are like a nannu to me’. That is what the boy told the elderly man as he hugged him.

A garage where a homeless person was living.A garage where a homeless person was living.

He was happy for him for settling into a new home, but he would miss him,” recalls YMCA head of residential services Kerry Hermitage, as she recounts some examples of life at the YMCA shelters.

“What’s always amazed me about these people is that no matter how difficult things are for them, they still look after each other and prepare a meal for the person coming late from work. They become a family. Irrelevant of age, gender, nationality, they create a support system,” she says.

YMCA is a registered voluntary organisation that supports people who are facing homelessness. They provide shelter for up to one-and-a-half years as well as support to help the people, including families, back on their feet.

At the moment, YMCA runs Dar Niki Cassar that has 34 beds, and Communal Home with 14 beds. It plans to open a third home to cater for people over 60 and people with disabilities, and plans on extending Dar Niki by building two additional floors.

Hermitage, a social worker, says that every year YMCA receives between 400 and 500 referrals of people who end up roofless. Since the coronavirus pandemic struck in March 2020 the cases increased to over 1,500 over two years, of which over 400 were under 18.

One man was living under a tree. He would wash in the sea before work

The main reasons why people end up homeless are usually financial – like the loss of job – or a family issue, like separations or falling out with relatives. The pandemic caused an increase in people losing their jobs. Other reasons are health problems resulting in people not being able to work and increases in rent prices.

“We’ve had families sleeping in garages two floors underground, people sleeping in cars and in caves. One man was living under a tree, hiding a bag with his belongings in the tree when he went to work. He would wash in the sea before work. He could not cope with rent and used his salary to buy food and travel by bus,” she says.

This can happen to anyone, she says. Over the years, people of all walks of life have walked into the shelter for help: from housewives and migrants to engineers and public figures.

“Homelessness is stemmed by a change in circumstance. We take it for granted, but not everyone has a support structure when things fall apart. Some people don’t have that support. Then there is the stigma and the shame attached to it. People going through this feel ashamed and want to hide. This hides the social issue and makes it more difficult to address it and put the necessary services in place. It delays them getting help. Just because we don’t see it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there,” she says.

YMCA will be holding a 12-hour TV fundraising marathon today from noon till midnight on all local stations.

*Not their real names.

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