New Kingston gay and HIV homeless need help – HIV activists

Published: August 15, 2011

JAMAICA Aids Support for Life (JASL) is calling on the Government to make provisions to house homeless gay men in New Kingston whose numbers have been steadily increasing over the years.

Chairman of JASL, Ian McKnight, feels that while the issue might not sit well with a number of taxpayers, the situation transcends personal or religious beliefs and, instead, is a matter that should be tackled by the administration.

"Organisations can only bite off a chewable piece of the whole pie," McKnight said, pointing to the fact that non governmental organisations (NGOs) like his can only do so much and no more without significant support from Government.

"The ultimate responsibility belongs to Government. Government has the responsibility to ensure that all its citizens, and, in particular, those ostracised from mainstream society are taken care of. In this case, housing is one of those amenities that Government has an obligation to provide," McKnight said in an interview with the Observer.

He argued that because of the level of bigotry among Jamaicans, many stigmatised sections of the population like these men fall through the cracks, with it being socially acceptable not to provide for them. Many of them have taken to strolling the streets as male prostitutes and have been the source of complaints from residents of New Kingston, who say they have become a public nuisance.

While some persons may not agree with spending money on shelter for these homeless homosexuals, it is the right thing for the country to do, McKnight insisted.

"The average taxpayer is not going to be happy about such a thing. But providing amenities for citizens is not something that you can decide who is treated well and who is not treated well based on how people feel. That is a human right of citizens — and in this case, we are talking about the MSM (men who have sex with men) population."

McKnight also pointed out that there were things Jamaicans were required to do, regardless of whether or not they agree with it.

"One of the most current examples is that many people who use seat belts when they’re driving, they don’t like it, especially if you buy a car and it doesn’t have any seat belt and you have to spend more to put seat belts in there. People don’t like to pay taxes, but they have to do it," McKnight said.

"So Government must stop fooling themselves into thinking that people only do things that they like. There are things that the Government will have to do that may not be favourable among the majority of people, but they must be done."

McKnight said that while it would be very costly to house all the homeless living in abandoned buildings and gullies in the New Kingston area, he feels that shelter should be provided for those forced out of their homes and communities and onto the streets as a result of their sexual preference.

Many of them, he said, are vulnerable to being beaten by the police, attacked by men riding motorbikes and stoned by those bent on ridding them from society.

Executive director of JASL, Kandasi Levermore agreed, on the basis that their HIV status makes these homeless men more vulnerable.

"This is the Government’s responsibility, with a growing community that is at increased risk," Levermore said.

"Not just for HIV/AIDS but other health outcomes and just their own personal outcomes. JASL bears it all the time, once something happens with this community or any faction of the HIV community, then JASL is called to bear (the burden). And I must tell you that is a bit unfair," said Levermore.

She said that with its limited resources, the assistance that the organisation can offer these young men may not necessarily be what they needed.

"The help that we can give these guys — I don’t know if that is the help that they want. Because what we don’t have is — we don’t have houses to offer to these guys for them to live in. We don’t have a place of abode to give them," she said.

"What we do have are HIV services. We have our clinical services where these guys can come in. They are offered counselling services, adherence counselling, they are able to see a medical doctor and get their prescription for ARVs (antiretroviral drugs) that they can fill at any drug store/pharmacy. That is the kind of services we do offer."

JASL — and a similar NGO working with the New Kingston homeless gays, Jamaica Forum for Lesbians All Sex and Gays (JFLAG) — are both funded by grants received from international donor partners, with the Ministry of Health assisting them largely through the national HIV/AIDS progragramme.

Levermore said, however, despite the lack of income geared towards a housing solution for the homeless MSM, she does not get the impression that the Government has washed it’s hands of the plight of the homosexual community.

"In fact, I can tell you that (concerning HIV/AIDS), that sector, a lot of work has gone into working with this population, and JASL has championed that work. But it’s at a stage where the demands are more than the supply, especially with the MSM homeless community. We are not able to give them at this time all that they are asking. I think, ultimately, they want to be able to have somewhere to live. Whether or not they are open to somewhere outside of the city, I don’t know."

She also argued that even with additional help from the Government and other aid groups, the individuals directly affected have a responsibility to themselves.

"Even though we are working in HIV/AIDS, individual responsibility is a key ingredient in any kind of prevention work that we’ll ever be able to do. And, as such, if individuals themselves are not demonstrating their own responsibility to their own self, it makes it a million times harder for organisations like JASL," Levermore said, pointing to problems getting the gay prostitutes to practice safe sex.

This, she said, is where the NGOs "are not seeing significant changes in behaviour that is showing a personal commitment".

"It can’t be a situation where I want this for you, but you are not seeing where you want it for yourself. And that has been a serious gap," she said.

"We can say to you there are other factors — social and cultural factors — that are driving the behaviours. Because they (male prostitutes) will tell you when they are negotiating their sexual encounters, it is about who is going to pay, how much they are going to pay, and all of that goes into their calculation as to whether or not they utilise the condom. So their situation do always put them at greater risk."

Focus group discussions have been held where the young men were encouraged to state their needs and concerns. After this, JFLAG undertook personal development workshops with them conducted by trained counsellors. But, according to Levermore, even this failed.

"So we are at a stage where all the strategies we have engaged so far — JAS and JFLAG — they have not reaped the kind of success that a funding agency will look at and say ‘let us see how we can contribute to fund and support such programmes’," she explained.

"The guys are not progressing into any other thing. So even if we have situations where we had remedial classes, the attendance was poor, so the funding agencies were not able to continue. It’s not for fear of trying; we have done counselling, we had psychology, we went as far as had focus groups with Dr Peter Weller, and through all of that JAS and JFLAG facilitated over the last year-and-a-half, minimum, and it was not progressing."

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