In Gambier Village, a narrow alleyway – flanked on either side by houses and rendered invisible from the roadside – leads to a dilapidated one-room building that has been serving as a home to Pachino Thurston, Shauna Elliott and their five children.
Some of the building’s four windows are missing panes, and rats have chewed through the floorboards in some places, leaving the inhabitants vulnerable to the elements and pests.
The family does not have access to electricity or running water.
There is no kitchen – a single hot plate is the only way Elliott is able to prepare hot meals for her children.
Two small bookcases serve as storage for household necessities – tins of nonperishable food, limes, a box of Lipton tea, soap, deodorant.
Rolls of toilet tissue line one of the shelves. But with no bathroom or access to even an outhouse, Elliott, Thurston and their children are forced to relieve themselves in nearby bushes.
Thurston acknowledged it’s not the safest option, especially when it’s dark outside, but the only one.
“I just let them go in the bush across the road,” he said.
Two stacks of mildew-stained mattresses pushed against adjacent walls at the back of the room, designate the sleeping area. There is a gaping hole in the roof just above the children’s bed, and a hole in the drywall just behind it.
On the table next to the parents’ bed is a small pile of diapers for the three-month-old baby.
The family’s clothes are kept in cardboard boxes and garbage bags, many of the articles mildewed because they cannot be properly laundered.
“We wash what we could wash, but we only have a certain amount of space on the clothesline, so we can’t wash so much clothes,” Elliott said.
“And it isn’t even our line. It’s the people in the back, their line. So we have to see when they are washing and when they aren’t washing.
“So, because it’s not our line, we can’t wash so much. So that’s why some of the clothes have mildew.”
Eight-year-old Patrice said she doesn’t invite her friends to her home.
The oldest of all the siblings, she said she can hear roaches crawling around at night, and that she’d change everything about the house if given the chance.
“Everything,” she said.
“I want to live in a new house and have a bathroom, kitchen, TV, front room and everything.”
With no electricity, Patrice has been unable to attend virtual lessons throughout the COVID pandemic.
Her other siblings aren’t in school yet.
“We have their birth certificates and everything, but they said we need the code from the Ministry [of Education] to say they were accepted in school,” Elliott said.
Elliott said it would be nice to be able to live somewhere more secure. She said rats regularly get into the home and get into the food, and the mosquitoes are inescapable.
“I would like if me and my children could be somewhere comfortable; when night comes we don’t have to worry about getting bitten,” she said.
“We could have lights, a bathroom, have a kitchen, somewhere comfortable where we could be.”
While Elliott resumed work with a cleaning company this week, Thurston said he didn’t have a job even before the pandemic. But every day he tries to provide for his family. He said the living conditions, although not the best, are all he’s ever known.
“I’ve just been without work,” he said.
“So I just hustle and try to make a living every day, you know what I mean, just for life is how I look at it.
“But I’ve been trying hard and for very long, so there’s some things I really want to do but I never get time to do it. And I’m still working at it. And then the COVID definitely shut me down again. But before COVID I wasn’t working and it’s very hard. It’s still hard. So, I mean it’s a little worse now. I still ain’t give up. I’m still hustling, doing little things to take care of my family, make sure they straight. And that’s all that matters.
“The way I live, I’ve been living like this…from I was small I was living like this. So I’m used to it, but I clean up my environment a little bit. I like my clean areas; but sometimes it’s so busy I don’t have a chance to do anything just hustling trying to make [ends meet for] my family.”
He added, “Living here, it’s like I don’t have any other choice.
“This is the only choice I get, so, before I go on the streets and sleep in a car or somewhere else, I’d rather just stay here and try to maintain it as much as I can.”