In addition to providing health care to more than half the country’s population not to mention its successes in sundry surgeries, the San Fernando General Hospital has also over the years become a haven for the homeless. Among patients at the hospital who are being treated for various illnesses could be found former patients who were discharged but continue to remain in the wards because they have nowhere to call home or in some cases no one to take care of them.
In such a situation, the Ministry of Social Development is contacted and they place the former patients in homes. But apart from that group of socially displaced people are the homeless.They do not require medical attention but for various reasons have found themselves without a roof over their heads and sought shelter at the sprawling facility. Hospital authorities are not under any obligation to them.
Some of them roam the streets of San Fernando during the day and at nights return to the hospital for safety. The exact number is not known. One woman in particular has been living at the hospital for the past five years. She is appealing to government for a house so that her life can return to some level of normalcy.
Mary Paria , 60, a mother of one, formerly of Claxton Bay related how in 2009 after her home collapsed during a freak storm she was given an HDC apartment at Pelican Avenue, Lot No 28 in Couva.
Paria said she tried her best to provide for herself and her son but the criminal elements in the neighbourhood made life hard for them. In 2011 she related how men from the area began breaking into her home in her absence. She said at the time her son was a teenager attending secondary school while she worked as a domestic helper. She said one day she returned home to find a strange object in her living room area. She was later told by a police officer that it was part of a gun.
Paria said she became afraid because she realised that she was “being set up”. She said following the discovery the criminal elements began to terrorise her and threatened to kill her if she did not leave the house. She and her son were forced to flee and she ended up at the Centre for Socially Displaced Persons in Port of Spain. She said the matter was reported to the HDC and a social worker was assigned to her case but her attempts to relocate were unsuccessful.
When she could no longer handle the problems at the centre in Port of Spain, Paria said she came back to Couva and began staying at the Couva Hospital. She related how she would sleep on benches and endure the insults from security guards who would tell her to leave the premises.
When that became unbearable, Paria said she sought refuge at the San Fernando General Hospital and has continued to call it home despite the hardships.
Paria confessed that she sleeps in the Accident & Emergency Department at nights. She said she uses the bathroom facilities and is sometimes given food by kind hospital staff. She said a friend would wash her clothes for her.
But as she continues to eke out an existence at the hospital Paria worries about how her son is faring. She said the hardest thing was to leave her son who was still a teenager at the time because “he needed someone to look after him.” She said he now lives in a small rented apartment.
During the interview at the hospital it was clear that Paria was well known as various categories of hospital staff called out to her as she sat on a chair in the corridor on the ground floor.
She related when she first came to the hospital she would sleep on the corridor near Ward 15 but was eventually removed by security guards. She said they even took her bags of clothing which she eventually got back but was warned not to come back upstairs.
So intense is Paria’s longing for a home that two years ago when then Minister of Housing Randall Mitchell was touring the SFGH she shouted out to him that she needed a house and was rebuffed by the young Minister. She said despite promises from the Minister that she would be contacted by the Social Welfare department, that promise has so far failed to materialise.
“I need assistance urgently. I want a home. It is not nice sleeping here. The security guards does give me trouble. They always chasing me and telling me I cannot sleep here. I don’t feel safe at nights, they want me out of here,” she said.
Paria further explained that she is able to pay rental for an HDC Unit and is not asking for a free house. “ I would like a house so that when I die my son will have somewhere to put his head. I capable of paying my rent.”
She said she was told by hospital authorities that she could find lodging at one of the centres for the socially displaced in either Couva or Point Fortin but she said she refused. “They want to put me in a home and give me tea, breakfast and dinner and wear second hand clothes. I don’t want that. I could do everything for myself, that’s why I want my own place.”
Being in the hospital Paria said she has learnt many lessons about life. She said at times she would even tell the nurses that “this is a good place to take example. They could see how people suffering and could look and learn about life that today you up and tomorrow you could be down, just by the flick of a match.”
She continues to live in hope that her prayers will be answered and she would be reunited with her son.