Charles travelled a lot when he was young, graduated in philosophy and worked as a cook for 40 years. Describing himself as a person of faith, a father, husband and an artist, he led an accomplished life but, at the age of 62, he is now struggling with homelessness.
Forty-four years his junior, Claire – who has a passion for music and enjoys playing volleyball – has just enrolled in a hairdressing course. She has eight siblings and no parental support and says that, despite being legally an adult, she still “feels like a child”. Like Charles, Claire is homeless and is finding it very challenging to manage her life.
Charles and Claire are two of 50 people who are collaborating with YMCA to debunk stereotypes around homelessness, something that remains somewhat of a “hidden reality” in Malta.
Their stories are being told in an exhibition called Ego Sum (‘I Am’ in Latin) with artwork by Tyler Calleja Jackson and Rachel Bowman. The exhibition is being organised by YMCA Malta and is partly funded by Arts Council Malta.
YMCA CEO Anthony Camilleri told Times of Malta stereotypes of homelessness often perpetuate severely mentally ill people, substance abusers or lazy people mooching State aid.
“A choice is often implicit in this narrative: people don’t become homeless but choose to live that way.
“The reality of our homeless population is far more diverse and much closer to home,” he said, adding that the so-called middle and upper classes were also increasingly experiencing homelessness.
One of the people who interviewed participants for the project, Isabelle Camilleri, told Times of Malta that everyone and anyone can end up homeless. Among others, a Master’s degree student became homeless when he fell out with his family while a father and his son ended up at a YMCA shelter after the man separated from his partner, she recalled.
The road to independence is long
Most of her interviewees had a job but could not make ends meet and they all spoke about becoming independent. But the road to independence is long, as it has become really challenging to find affordable rent. And some have been caught in a bureaucratic and legal web linked to their marital status and cannot, for example, even apply for housing benefits.
“Still others are dealing with the issue of homelessness while coming to terms with past trauma. One homeless woman who spoke to me was raped while fleeing Libya and eventually gave birth to a girl whom she adores. She is currently working as a cleaner throughout the day and sleeping in a shelter with her daughter.
“Another person I spoke to was diagnosed with cancer after moving to Malta. Now that he is in remission, the little money he makes is being eaten up by backdated medical bills.”
One of the stories that resonated with one of the artists – Bowman – is that of a woman who was a teacher before becoming homeless. And it is that part of her identity – being an educator – that is slowly helping get her back on her feet as she has now started giving private lessons.
“Each story – and the linked emotions – are different, varying from frustration to disappointment. However, most participants have one common feature: hope, which came about as a result of the same lived experience of homelessness,” she said.
The exhibition, at the Società Dante Alighieri, 134 Old Bakery Street, Valletta, is open throughout October.
People can visit from Monday to Friday between 5pm and 8pm and on Saturdays from 10am to 12pm or 5pm to 8pm.
A collage of multiple photos and artwork from the exhibition, called The Face of Homelessness, will be installed in multiple locations until the end of December.
Mario: “I am an engineer, a father, a trainer, a mentor, an inventor and a dreamer. I am also a 63-year-old homeless person. Being an engineer gave me a sense of belonging within my family, as my family has a long history in the engineering trade. Homelessness strips you of other identities. Even if I hit rock bottom, when I think about my profession and what I have accomplished, it gives me a sense of satisfaction and pushes me to continue working to succeed.”
Maggie: “I always did what my parents told me to do, so it was tough for me to discover who I really am. Today, at 22, I am a survivor, an independent and persistent woman, who works hard, budgets her money carefully and is a problem solver who faces her challenges with her head held high. I am hopeful and faithful that I will get back on my feet and be a better version of myself.”
Francesco: “I am presently homeless but I am a hard-working person and I dream of the day I become independent, having a place of my own, having my own family and opening a restaurant. I used to work in a restaurant, where I fell in love with cooking and experimenting with different flavours. Lately, I’ve been thinking about pursuing a career as a chef. I love the idea of creating new dishes and seeing people enjoy them.”