“We try to work little miracles every day,” residential administrator Anthony Camilleri said, as a little girl whizzed past him into the living room of Dar Niki Cassar, the YMCA shelter in Valletta for homeless people.
The shelter is meant to house 22 individuals, but in recent weeks it has been loaded with up to 32 people who have to share one TV set, a cooker and a fridge.
The Valletta-based YMCA operates from two buildings: a drop-in centre on Merchants Street and Dar Niki Cassar.
Operations and administrations manager Maria Sammut has been tirelessly working at YMCA for the past four years.
“Little things keep me going. I’ve learnt not to expect a thank you. The other day, a person seeking the shelter’s help was given food aid. Instead of thanking us, he requested some tomato polpa. As I stood there in front of him, I asked myself: ‘What am I doing here?’
“But then, that day a person came over because he needed someone to listen to him, and he showered me with gratitude,” Ms Sammut smiled.
Homelessness can sneak up on anyone.
“It’s easy to blame the homeless, saying they should go work. But you have to understand what led to homelessness. Some people do not even know how to compile a CV,” she added.
Mr Camilleri, who has been working with YMCA for three years, added: “Homelessness is not a choice. It’s the end result of many problems, and it usually does not happen overnight.”
But anyone could land in such a state. One day a family with four children returned home and found their ceiling had caved in, while a businessman was referred to the shelter by a social worker after he ended up penniless and was forced to live in a garage for four months.
“You have to walk a mile in their shoes to understand what they’ve been through,” Maria added.
Some people approach the shelter empty-handed and with a dependency mentality.
“At the shelter we base our help on the fact that they want to be independent,” Ms Sammut said.
Residents follow a care-plan monitored by the community, social and care workers. This includes budgeting skills and task management.
“We make it clear we’re offering a shelter, not hotel residence. The rooms are very basic. We insist: ‘This is not your home; we’re helping you to get your own home.’
“Once they get employed we ask for a contribution, until they become self-sufficient.”
The majority of occupants at the shelter are Maltese; however, there have also been EU nationals who come to Malta with working prospects, find themselves with their back against the wall and do not even have enough money to board a flight home. The bulk of people reach YMCA through the Initial Response Service of the stage social agency, Appoġġ.
“Although we do not frequently bump into homeless people, it doesn’t mean there aren’t homeless people in Malta,” Ms Sammut said.
A family with three children, including a seven-month old baby, who approached the shelter in recent months had lived in a tent for three weeks.
Ms Sammut and Mr Camilleri said the hardest part of their job was turning people away because of lack of space.
“You know that you’ve sent these people back on the street,” she said.
Between January and May, YMCA received 164 referrals, of which 66 were approved, while 98 got refused.
The residents’ target stay at the shelter is six months. Some of the most motivated ones leave earlier, though some stay longer than planned.
Once residents leave, they go through an aftercare and prevention programme under the watchful eye of community workers.
People end up in dire situations because they look for help when it’s too late, either when they are in a financial crisis, or when a landlord has told them to leave their home.
“We always wish we could do more, but our resources are limited. Food is a constant need; however, the biggest problem is wages, especially because of the 24-hour staff on duty.
“We’re always in need of volunteers, as we can’t afford more than one person on duty.”
Donation Website - www.donationto.com/YMCAHomelessCampaign
SMS lines: 5061 8088 for €4.66 donation; 5061 9212 for €11.65.
YMCA Website - www.ymcahomeless.org