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The Homeless: Do they know it’s Christmas?


The Homeless Nigerian. PHOTO: UNHCR

The Homeless Nigerian. PHOTO: UNHCR

“In a world of plenty, we can spread a smile of joy; throw your arms around the world at Christmas time, but say a prayer, pray for the other ones.

“At Christmas time it’s hard, but when you’re having fun, there’s a world outside your window; it’s a world of dread and fear, where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears..!

Well, tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you…..’’ (Abridged version of Band Aid 20 Lyrics, titled “Do they know it’s Christmas?’’)
Only 12 years old Jones has spent the last two Christmases on the streets homeless. His most frequent “home’’ in Lagos Metropolis is the space under a giant water tank at the National Theatre, Iganmu.

“It is cool here; I have friends, and we are having fun’’, says the skinny, obviously malnourished and unkempt boy who claims to have been born in Port Harcourt, but was forced to run away due to maltreatment by his stepmother.

“She used to beat me with a small pestle whenever my dad was not around. She was always accusing me of stealing her money or pieces of meat from the soup pot,’’ he says in broken English — with a grin showing brownish set of teeth that needs brushing.

According to Jones, his mother ran away with a Ghanaian sailor when he was just three years old, and his father — a carpenter — remarried six years later.

“I am the only child my mother had for my dad. I learnt she is from Cameroon; nobody seems to know where she is with her new husband,’’ Jones narrates.

He has, however, been deprived of spending his nights in the “protective’’ space under the water tank.

“The National Theatre’s private security men said we must not sleep here; I and two of my friends have moved to under the Ijora Bridge at Badiya.

“But, we come to the theatre to play, sleep, and beg for food in the daytime.

“Some churches bring food to us, especially on Sundays and festive periods, and we hold prayer sessions with their pastors’’.

Jones is not thinking of going back home to his dad. “I want to hustle and make money on my own, here in Lagos,’’ he quips.

With no education, having dropped out in primary three, the boy believes he will find a way and become rich and famous, even though currently homeless!

One of Jones’ friends and “roommate’’ seems unhappy with him for speaking with this writer. He prefers they continue playing football on a section of the tree-lined expansive National Theatre Complex.

However, as soon as the writer beckoned on an itinerant “puff-puff’’ seller to join him, the boys abandoned football and crowded him in anticipation of having something to chew.

They live on the benevolence of picnickers and passersby, as well as leftover food from the more than 20 canteens and beer parlours around the National Theatre.

What does Christmas mean to Jones and his homeless colleagues? “It is not too different from our normal days, except we may get more gifts and money from the increased population of fun-seekers around the theatre. No new clothes and shoes; no live chicken to kill, and no family members to celebrate with.’’

It may seem as if the “Joneses’’ became homeless through their individual acts, but many are in similar positions because of circumstances, natural disasters, wars and other forms of violence.

Nigeria and most of other West African countries have been lucky to be spared of earthquakes, serious flooding, Tsunamis, extreme cold and intemperate high atmospheric temperatures.

But, insurgency, especially the activities of the Boko Haram terror group, has killed many in North-Eastern Nigeria and rendered thousands homeless.

Many other countries bordering Nigeria in the Lake Chad region — Cameroon, Niger and Chad — are grappling with the horrors of this insurgency. Internally displaced people (IDPs) abound in camps in the war-torn regions of Nigeria and along the border with her neighbours. Uprooted from their homesteads and violently separated from loved ones, they hardly know it is Christmas!

Prof. Joshua Agbo, a lecturer of Political Science at the Benue State University, wants government to “provide an intervention scheme for the homeless.

“It should be geared at creating jobs for the homeless, provide a return of remuneration, however, minute.

“This remuneration will, in turn, empower them economically to be able to make ends meet, more specifically, payment of house rent’’.

Agbo says, “For the very elderly homeless’’, there should be creation of more poor people’s homes with trained personnel to cater for their needs.

“This will bring a ray of hope in the way of such indigent persons’’.

The Lagos State Government has three rehabilitation centres: The Rehabilitation and Training Centre, Majidun, houses rescued beggars, the destitute and the mentally challenged. The centre has 1,200 rehabilitees.

The state also has the Rehabilitation and Vocational Training Centre, Isheri-Berger. This has 45 male drug dependents.

Lagos also has the State Vocational Rehabilitation Centre for Persons Living with Disabilities in Owutu-Ikorodu, with 35 inmates.

According to a social worker, most of those in need of help, especially a roof over their heads, prefer to remain on the streets begging instead of being “restricted’’ in a rehabilitation centre.

The Director of Social Communications, Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos, Monsignor Gabriel Osu, calls on all tiers of government to go back to their drawing boards as they have done in the past.

“If the government is serious with human management, it knows what to do. In those days, government used to go round with its vehicles to look for them (homeless). They would take those who should be in school to school, and some would be engaged.

“In those days, we used to have the late Pa Huppers Centre, Boys Scout in Agege, Yaba Training Centre, Alakoro Centre, Ministry of Sports and Youth Centres. We also had individuals taking care of the homeless.

“They engaged them in different vocations; apart from that, they (homeless) still went to school. Even different ministries too used to do that, but they suddenly stopped caring. They should go back to those days.’’

The Director of Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), Prof. Ishaq Akintola, urges parents to be responsible by taking care of their children.

“Government at all tiers should make it their priority to educate parents to give birth to the number children that they are capable of taking care of. They should also make it their duty to check on parents who are unable to give education, accommodation, feeding and all the needful to their children. If possible, such parents should be punished.

“They should make sure that parents do not ignore that aspect of their responsibility,’’ Akintola says.

The vulnerable, the displaced, the bereaved and broken-hearted, the sick (especially the terminally ill) and the homeless, should be reached out to in a season that emphasises sharing, caring, loving and giving in general.

Conflicts should be avoided to save people from being uprooted from their homesteads, and the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and its state subsidiaries should be empowered to cope with emergencies.

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