A total of 14,685 people in Malta and Gozo received food packages last month as part of a new EU food aid programme for Malta’s most deprived, recent statistics show.
The Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) is primarily aimed at assisting families and, therefore, all beneficiaries had to subscribe to specific parameters.
FEAD distribution coordinator Stephen Vella explained that the Social Solidarity Ministry was aware of other families who needed similar assistance but did not fall within the eligible parameters of the programme.
They will be reached through similar, nationally funded initiatives, he said.
The statistics tabled in Parliament earlier this week by Social Solidarity Minister Michael Farrugia listed the number of food bag recipients per location.
St Paul’s Bay scored highest, with 964 people receiving bags of food, followed by Birkirkara and Qormi.
Using 2014 population figures obtained from the NSO, this newspaper mapped out the concentration of recipients per locality. According to this exercise, 11 per cent of Cospicua’s population qualified for the food bags, followed by Floriana and Valletta.
Following an article detailing this information, this newspaper received an indignant letter from the Cospicua Heritage Society, complaining that residents felt “defamed and humiliated” by the singling out of the locality as the town which contained the highest concentration of materially deprived people.
The phenomenon of people suffering material deprivation is a growing one and is spread out across the island. However, people battling poverty tend to gravitate towards those locations which, at that point in time, offer properties at low rental prices.
That area initially started out as being the inner harbour region but, following the regeneration of the Vittoriosa and Cospicua seafront, there has been a marked shift towards areas such as St Paul’s Bay, Marsascala and Marsalforn in Gozo.
The Sunday Times of Malta sat down with staff from the Cottonera and Qawra LEAP Centres to further explore the complex origins of poverty.
The Cottonera LEAP Centre
The need for community work within the Three Cities was perceptible back in 1994 when Cottonera was a depressed area, Ann Marie Ciantar – Cottonera community service area leader from Appoġġ – explains.
A number of people migrated towards Cospicua favouring the low rental prices while the Housing Authority built a number of apartment blocks used as social housing, leading to a higher concentration of impoverished people in the area.
The area began to see the emergence of social problems, juvenile delinquency, rising drug rates, unemployment and mental health problems – issues which still persist. However, following the area’s regeneration, there has been a marked shift towards the north of the island.
There is still a large concentration of people with social problems, Ms Ciantar adds, partly due to the large networks of families who rely on the help and support of their extended family.
Poverty is quantified in terms of skills – such people would require budgeting skills, parenting skills, more empowerment in terms of education, and higher self-esteem.
How does a person end up in dire straits, with not enough food on the table?
The reasons behind poverty are highly multifaceted and complex, Roberta Micallef – assistant manager of the southern harbour, south and west regions – says.
“Every single person has their own story. Some are born into children’s homes or into families in abject poverty, while others are in employment but are suddenly struck down by sickness, whether physical or mental health problems. They would need to invest in medicine, therapy and care.
“Sometimes, we need to walk a mile in their shoes to truly understand what they’re going through.”
Being employed does not automatically banish penury, Nathalie Grima – northern harbour regional development agent – points out. Unskilled workers tended to be employed for the minimum wage, which was still too low when compared to the soaring prices of rental charges and of most daily needs.
Moreover, mobile phones, laptops and internet access could no longer be considered as luxuries, with the latter two being especially crucial for children’s education.
Single mothers often found it very hard to manage employment and their children’s care concurrently.
“We encounter instances when children are diagnosed with diabetes,” Ms Ciantar says. You could be at work when you suddenly receive a call to pick up your son.
“Now, imagine these calls being undertaken frequently – how long will the employer put up with the situation?”
Others might wish to enrol their children in childcare but find that their work hours do not tally with the operational hours of childcare centres.
Many unskilled people tended to find jobs in the catering sector.
The difficulties faced by single mothers –not only those who conceived out of wedlock but also those who underwent a separation – are many and complex, Ms Grima says.
“There needs to be more flexibility from employers, who need to better understand the realities of single parent families. Many parents reason that since they brought their children into the world, it is their responsibility to care for them. They feel a lot of pressure to work while their children are very young.
“I often encourage them to attend morning courses while their children are at school so that they can invest in their children’s education,” Ms Grima says.
The level of available support is often inversely proportional to the degree of poverty, Ms Micallef adds. Single-parent households with a support system from grandparents or aunts are much more likely to advance forward and emerge from the poverty cycle, as do those who seek out help from support services. Conversely, people who are isolated remain much more firmly grounded in poverty.
Yet why would some single mothers already battling poverty bring more children into the world?
“Many people tend to judge such women,” Ms Ciantar says. They think it’s her fault because ‘she got pregnant once again’. But when you hear out their story, it often boils down to abuse and domestic violence. Violence suffered by women in a controlling relationship is not only physical but also sexual and emotional.
“Others would have children from different relationships. Such women would often try to start afresh and settle down, believing that their current relationship would turn out better than their preceding one. They end up being victims of circumstances.”
They think it’s her fault because ‘she got pregnant once again’, but it often boils down to abuse and domestic violence
A number of psychological aspects often came into play in such situations, Ms Grima adds. People who grew up in a household lacking affection would tend to crave it much more as an adult. And such behaviour would often repeat itself.
“I’ve heard stories where a man would outwardly seem kind and responsible but, as soon as the woman is pregnant, he ups and leaves. That’s why we strongly believe in strengthening sexual education so they would take the necessary precautions and not rush,” Ms Grima says.
The support workers often work with hospitals to enable women, with their full consent, to undergo tubal ligation procedures or be fitted with an intrauterine device (or coil) as birth control methods.
“We feel we can work more with women than with men on issues of contraception,” Ms Ciantar says.
“Many women feel embarrassed to insist with men to use contraception. We therefore try to empower women to take the necessary precautions.”
Sex education in schools is still not sufficient, Ms Grima states, adding that young people needed to understand that a few minutes of pleasure was not worth the responsibility of raising a child.
There are instances when children as young as 12 became the primary caregivers, missing out on school to look after younger siblings because their parents are out partying or battling some habit or illness.
Other people were stricken by poverty after entering into an expense, such as a court case which produced hefty bills. This, in turn, often led to another vicious cycle – usury.
“People on benefits might scrape enough together to buy some food. Usury victims often do not even have enough to eat,” Ms Grima says.
“A house’s façade may appear normal but, on the inside, it would literally be stripped bare of its furnishings. Some people loan money to sustain a drug habit, while others enter into a financial commitment without budgeting properly, such as buying a car. Once you fall into that cycle, you’ve had it.”
Victims of usury are gripped by an intense fear, causing them not to reveal their oppressors. The anxiety suffered is very intense and would affect the rest of the family.
Mental health problems often contributed to poverty, the majority of which would go undiagnosed and untreated. Some resist seeking help, mistakenly fearing that medication might lead to further lethargy.
People with mental health problems often encountered employability problems. For instance, a person with schizophrenia might function well throughout 75 per cent of the year but might then suffer a flare-up, Ms Grima explains. This might lead to one aggressive incident on the workplace, which would spell the end of his job.
“We need to be a bit more understanding. We know of young people with a mental health problem or a slight intellectual disability who have been unsuccessfully trying for years to get a job. There needs to be some flexibility in the workplace. Most people just need some empowerment, handholding and motivation,” Ms Micallef says.
The Qawra LEAP Centre
Research by Nationalist MP Ċensu Galea exposed the rapid transformation of what was once a sleepy fishermen’s village, highlighting emerging social problems in St Paul’s Bay, home to some 100 different nationalities. The rampant construction of apartment blocks, coupled with affordable prices, has contributed in a major way to this dramatic shift.
Yet poverty is not only financial but also social, relating to issues such as lack of integration, solitude and lack of education, Martin Chetcuti – regional development agent of the northern region – points out.
The aim behind the FEAD project was not only to provide food to destitute families but to enable support workers to be welcomed into such homes and to assess families in an attempt to address their problems in a holistic manner.
As one of Malta’s largest localities, St Paul’s Bay encompasses over 18,000 residents. Yet areas such as Qawra and Buġibba are highly distinct from areas such as Xemxija, Burmarrad and Bidnija, LEAP project manager Saviour Grima says.
“I would say that it is high time they are split into separate local councils because their realities are so different. Burmarrad, for in-stance, has a family core system while a number of elderly people populate the centre of St Paul’s Bay.
“Qawra, on the hand, is highly multicultural. Many people come here because no one knows them, allowing them to start afresh and get a job. Throughout our work, we must always remember that every person is endowed with dignity and we must empathise with them.”
We must always remember that every person is endowed with dignity
Similar to other localities in Malta, people suffering material deprivation often end up in such a situation after falling victim to drugs, usury or ending up as single parents.
However, unlike other localities, such people in St Paul’s Bay tended to lack the support of their families – either because they have fought with their families and were too hurt to reach out or because they are foreigners whose families live abroad, Mr Grima explains.
Having people from 100 different nationalities concentrated in one area meant different languages, cultures and traditions. Language barriers led to an increased difficulty in communicating and in seeking a job.
What type of challenges emerge from multiculturalism? “When a person comes to live in Malta from a different country, he or she must get to know the place. But every person has a different character. Not everyone has the ability to build a relationship with the people around them and therefore find it difficult to integrate.
“On the other hand, not everyone is ready to integrate those around them and make that extra effort to make them feel at home.
“And this also applies to Maltese people who move to St Paul’s Bay from another town or village,” Mr Chetcuti adds.
This, in turn, brought about challenges of isolation and solitude. It also meant that many people in need lacked the knowledge and awareness of the support services available within their community.
Moreover, one out of every seven prisoners is officially registered as living in the St Paul’s Bay area. Former convicts often find it very difficult to find a job, which often leads them back to criminality to enable them to survive.
Some women resorted to prostitution to help pay off debts. Moreover, many boathouses housed increasingly destitute families in cramped conditions.
“One salient question is: how will people who live in rented apartments be sustained once they have become pensioners?” Mr Chetcuti asks.
Rose*, a 32-year-old single mother of six children who received two food bags last month, opens up to this newspaper.
I am a single mother of six children, aged between 16 and six.
Everyone makes a mistake in life, no one’s perfect. The important thing is that you are aware of your mistake. I’m lucky enough to have had the support of my mother – otherwise, I don’t know where I would have ended up. She currently is taking care of the children of my brother, who is in prison.
Everyone tends to judge single mothers and put them all in one basket. But not everyone is the same. I don’t waste my cheque on getting my nails done, like some others do.
I always look at what my children need first and always put their needs before my own. I get by with my old pair of shoes and hand-me-downs.
But my children need to eat, they need school books and stationery.
My eldest son was made redundant and is looking for a job. I should have accompanied him today to obtain some papers, but I’m ashamed to say I don’t even have enough money to pay the bus fare.
You have to set aside money for when the children are sick, to pay off the doctor’s bill and buy the necessary medicine. I’ve also accumulated debts with my local grocer.
I’m very happy with the bags of food I received, and I really appreciated them. I generally divide a chunk of meat amongst my children together with eggs, chips, beans – and bread. We must eat bread with everything because it is filling and kills the hunger pangs.
My advice to my 16-year-old self would be: don’t rush. I was in love and I tried to give the man whatever he wanted. I was ultimately betrayed.
I want my children to lead a better life than I ever did.
*Name has been changed
Concentration of food aid by locality
Top localities with the highest concentration of food-aid recipients worked out as a percentage of each locality’s population:
Cospicua - 11%
Floriana - 9%
Valletta - 8%
Marsa - 7%
Ħamrun - 6%
Xgħajra - 6%
Vittoriosa - 6%
Senglea - 6%
Safi - 6%
Localities with the lowest concentration of recipients:
Lija - 1%
Sliema - 1%
Iklin - 1%
Gudja - 1%
Swieqi - 1%
Attard - 1%
Munxar - 1%
Table compiled by Kurt Sansone.
Localities with the highest number of beneficiaries:
St Paul’s Bay - 964
Birkirkara - 888
Qormi - 776
Żabbar - 600
Ħamrun - 563
Cospicua - 553
Marsascala - 484
Valletta - 466
Żebbuġ - 432
Żejtun - 418
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