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The young face of homelessness

The ranks of Bermuda’s homeless are increasingly being joined by “young people with backpacks”, according to longtime observer Dale Butler.

Mr Butler, a former Minister of Culture and Rehabilitation, believes that his 2009 documentary on the subject is even more relevant to today’s streets.

“We see more and more younger people carrying their stuff in bags, because of the problems they have such as joblessness or homelessness,” Mr Butler said.

“We have more homeless people, and now it’s having an impact on our tourists and on local business. A lot of people just wish to get rid of them.”

Many of the island’s most visible homeless are familiar characters, some of whom have spent decades on the street. However, less conspicuous are younger transient people who seldom show up in facilities such as the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter.

“I don’t know where they’re living,” Mr Butler told The Royal Gazette.

“You see them out and about with backpacks on — which indicates that most of their belongings are in those backpacks.”

Eight years on, many of the homeless people who appeared in his documentary Out among the Ins are now dead, Mr Butler said.

The film is to be shown at the Leopards’ Club tomorrow, to be followed by a discussion of the island’s dispossessed.

Major Frank Pittman, Bermuda’s Salvation Army divisional commander, agreed that many of Mr Butler’s original subjects were “no longer here”.

“Just as everything else continues to cycle, homelessness does as well,” Major Pittman added. “You get a younger generation who pick up where they left off.”

One of the island’s less obvious candidates shared his story with this newspaper, under anonymity.

“I was homeless from the age of 21 to 23, a solid two years,” said the man, now 24, who has found steady employment and can afford a roof over his head.

“Being homeless is different from someone who doesn’t have a set address. I did a lot of couch hopping. But I did go to the shelter for a while, which is not fun.

“There’s a rampant drug problem. I was different from the people who stay there because they don’t necessarily want to get a full-time home. They’re there for so long, they’re stuck, going to work and sleeping and getting up again. It’s an endless cycle of repetition. Coming in as a relatively young guy, everyone was looking at me wondering, what are you doing here; you’re so young.”

He described returning to the island from the United States to the eye-opening surprise of a jobs market in recession, and “having to pay $7 for a carton of milk”.

“I was constantly looking for a job and not being able to get one because I was underqualified,” he said. “That’s the problem. Nobody is willing to give you the experience you need. You can’t get the job until someone gives you a start.

“Getting that start was very, very difficult. I had to make a conscious decision not to fall into selling drugs. I wasn’t going to take that road. It’s an easy road, but it’s easy to get stuck there. I also didn’t beg. I played guitar in parks to make money and to eat. But like anything else, I had days when I was up and days when I was down. When I was down, I made a lot of bad decisions that I deeply regret. I stole from friends and I did a lot of things I wish I could take back.”

He said he would “much rather” be homeless in the US than in Bermuda. “People don’t ignore you. If you at least do something, if you have a talent, you’re more likely to be able to do something with it.”

Down-and-out younger people are unlikely to show up at such locations as the emergency shelter, he said.

“Nine times out of ten, people can lean on family or have some kind of support system with friends. I never really noticed many young guys at the shelter. Mostly, it looked to be people 40 and up.

Now on the verge of starting a job, his hope is to build enough funds to eventually attend college.

“I have a lot to look forward to,” he said. “Back then you’d hear people asking ‘how come he doesn’t get a real job’. It’s not that I wasn’t looking.”

According to Major Pittman, the Salvation Army feels “very positive” on developing a new shelter that would be “anything but a Band-Aid solution” for Bermuda’s homeless.

“It’s not going to be just a shelter; it will be much, much more,” he said. “It will provide a pathway to hope.”

Mr Butler’s documentary will be shown at 6pm tomorrow at the Leopards’ Club, with a question-and-answer session to follow. Along with the Salvation Army, Rodney Smith, who presented Bermuda’s first homeless report in 1993, is also expected to attend.