By John Gboko Kamara & Kemo Cham
A study on homelessness in Freetown has revealed that people living with disabilities constitute majority of the city’s homeless population.
The report published by Social Workers Sierra Leone (SWSL), a volunteer social work organization, is the result of a two-month long survey in a part of the capital city.
The authors sampled 372 people who live in the central business district of the city, many of them suffering from a mental health condition; they live in unsheltered conditions or are dwelling in the streets, market places or shop corridors.
Titled: “Homelessness Situation in Freetown,” the survey was designed to identify who is homeless, the subcategories of the homeless population, the pathways to homelessness, and the support systems available for the homeless population.
The findings reveal four subcategories of homelessness: People Living With Disabilities (PWDs), who comprises 81 percent, both young people and adults; those with severe mental health, comprising 19 percent; unaccompanied children; and single mothers. The age bracket of the youths surveyed ranges from 20 to 35, followed by adults aged 50 years and above.
According to findings of the study, which was launched on October 6, people get homeless in Freetown in three main ways, including neglect or lack of support for PDWs by family members and the larger community. Majority of PWDs surveyed (54 percent) became homeless before they were 15 years, this study shows. The other 46 percent reported that lack of access to housing, combined with other challenges, forced them into the streets.
People with mental illness are also forced into homelessness due to neglect by their family members, discrimination and other forms of abuse.
The third pathway is rural-urban youth migration. The report shows that many of the youths surveyed are involved with substance abuse, criminality and many were once incarcerated.
Many of the individuals experiencing homelessness in Freetown were found to exhibit one form of mental health condition or the other, with some dealing with physical illness, the report further reveals.
The data was collected by members of SWSL, which is a group of volunteer social workers who provide psychosocial support and other humanitarian services for communities and individuals in need. They also included interns from the Social Work Department of Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone.
Senior Social Worker at SWSL, Alie Barrie was lead researcher in the study that was conducted between June and July 2023. Barrie also coordinates the Sunday Meal Service, a flagship programme of the NGO which provides hot meals – breakfast and lunch – for homeless people every Sunday.
In 2018, SWSL introduced the weekend food distribution programme in response to what its Founder and National Coordinator, Hassan Koroma says is a recognition of the “persistent neglect and discrimination” of persons experiencing severe mental health illnesses, which leaves them in constant struggle to access decent and healthy meals, shelter, medical and even normal human relationship, which has resulted in complications like malnutrition, diseases and worsening mental conditions for many.
“Society has created a fence, making life for persons experiencing severe mental health illness, valueless,” the report notes.
According to Mr Barrie, the only hope of many homeless people within the central business district of Freetown, where they serve, is SWSL.
Besides that, he noted, they can only survive on leftovers in dustbins and marketplaces.
“There is no other organization or government institution to come to their aid or even visit them,” Barrie said.
Established in 2012, SWSL seeks proper care and attention for the homeless with the sole motive of taking them out of the streets.
Hassan Koroma, National Coordinator of the organization, said the objective of the survey is to spotlight the extent of a problem that not just have human rights issues, but which also has security ramifications if left unattended.
“When people are extremely vulnerable, they do anything and also they are prone to diseases. That itself calls for concern for the government to pay attention and efforts like SWSL in addressing the plight of people’s homelessness. We, as social workers, have a duty to care for vulnerable people and help them secure their human rights and that’s what we are doing, but we can’t do it without government support,” Koroma said at the event that was held at the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs at New England Ville in Freetown on Friday 6th October.
According to the SWSL founder, there are many reasons responsible for the cause of homelessness in Freetown, citing lack of affordable housing and the exorbitantly high cost of rent. Koroma added that this issue is compounded by the huge number of unemployment in the country.
According to him, poverty and disasters, like the devastating 2014 -2016 Ebola epidemic, the 2017 mudslide, fire incidents and flooding, forced many people, especially youths to migrate, leading to further overcrowding in Freetown.
Koroma added that people are considered homeless in Sierra Leone only when they are seen lying on the streets, shop corridors, and marketplaces, as opposed to other developed countries where people can be consider homeless even when they live in houses with no electricity, water supply, kitchens, toilets and bathing facilities.
This report was officially launched by the Director of Mental Health in the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, Mrs Kadiatu Savage, alongside the Deputy Minister of Social Welfare, Mr. Mohamed Haji-Kella.
Mrs Savage was proud of the organization for its “good work”, confirming in a statement that nothing like such an initiative exists anywhere in the country. She also confirmed that there are no government policies in Sierra Leone that looks into the affairs of the homeless.
Savage said many people became homeless because of circumstances beyond their control, like mental health, physical impairment, long term imprisonment and loss of families and properties due to natural disasters and other crises.
For Deputy Minister Kella, homelessness is a global problem. He said that he had traveled to many countries and that everywhere homeless people exist. He congratulated Mr Koroma and his team for their efforts in helping this segment of society.
The authors of the report provide several recommendations to address the situation of homelessness, which include for government to incorporate homelessness into its social protection programme, with a focus on ensuring access and affordable healthcare, as well as housing and wellbeing. They also call for strengthening of early support systems for children born with disabilities, partnership with SWSL in efforts to address homelessness and its associated issues, and funding for the organization’s flagship homeless feeding programme.
It also recommends for funding support for the survey to be expanded beyond Freetown.
“Such a survey helps us to be understand the plight of people experiencing homelessness and how to better help them in their struggle,” says Koroma.