A family of four, including two children aged 1 and 2, have been living on the streets for almost three months after the landlord put them out because of apparent tardiness by the government to pay a rental assistance grant promised to them.
Justin Roopchan, 29, his wife Tiffany Sylvester, 24, and their children, two-year-old Abby and one-year-old Jordan have been homeless since August 14.
The family was first made homeless in April when their rented apartment burnt to the ground in a freak accident.
“We had gone to a savannah close to the house with the children and the guy who was renting downstairs was home alone. He got a call that his wife had gone to the hospital to have a baby and he rushed out of the house to go meet her. He left a pot on the stove and the whole place catch up,” Roopchan said.
By the time Roopchan arrived at the house, all their belongings had been destroyed.
Roopchan had lost his job weeks before that. The couple reached out to the Ministry of Social Development for assistance and was given a rental assistance grant, which covers three months’ rent at an apartment.
They moved into an apartment in Arima, but Roopchan said despite his best efforts, he was still unable to find a job amid the COVID-19 economic pressures.
He said the Ministry gave them another three-month rental support grant but in August, the apartment’s owner told them he had not been paid by the State.
The landlord told them if they could not foot the bill, they would have to leave.
Since then, they have been on the streets, moving from one place to another, hoping to find a place to settle in.
“We stayed in Arima for a while, then moved to Tunapuna, then we come down here (San Juan). We used to sleep by Mt Hope, bathe in Aranguez by the park to keep ourselves clean, go Mt Hope to charge the phones so it would have a little charge,” Roopchan.
They would sometimes be allowed to stay at some good Samaritans’ homes for the night and they survived on the kindness of strangers.
“Out of 1,000 people to pass us straight, it would always have one who would come and ask what going on, why we outside with the children and they would offer some kind of help. If it was milk for the babies or something to eat and we would all share whatever it was.”
There were many terrifying nights for the young family, as Roopchan said they would often be robbed if he fell asleep.
“I does wake out the night because I have to watch over them…but sometimes when the tiredness and cold overtake me and I knock out, other people would just come and take whatever we have. Is plenty nights I just never sleep,” he said.
He said he has never given up hope that one day he will be able to provide for his family again but he agonizes over his situation.
“To have a family, having nowhere to go, having been living in a place, the place burn down, you lose your work, then the place under a lockdown, you not getting any work, your family is homeless, how will you feel? That will feel pretty embarrassing, although I have been trying, sometimes it makes me want to cry.”
He cannot get a job while homeless as he said he is afraid to leave his wife and children alone on the street.
He said he and Sylvester tried their best to keep the children comfortable throughout the long, cold nights.
“Sometimes I have to cut a jersey to make sure they covered and spread cardboard for them to make sure that the ground kinda warmish for them so they wouldn’t get no kind of cold. Basically most of the time we didn’t use to cover them because it had all kind of mosquitoes so for them not to get no bite and sick, no more sickness and we done out on the street already, to come and pick up any these contagious disease it have going on here now.”
On Saturday night, the family was in San Juan when WPC Giselle Serrette saw them and stopped to ask about their situation.
Serrette told Guardian Media she was distraught after seeing the two infant children asleep on cardboard boxes on the pavement.
By Sunday morning, Serrette’s friend had provided a place for the family to shelter.
The building in San Juan was used as a storage facility and when Guardian Media visited on Sunday morning, it was packed with chairs and plastic tables.
Roopchan said the building’s owner had left to get some workmen to assist in clearing one room for them to stay.
While waiting for him to return, Roopchan and Sylvester cleared a small space inside the building, laid down a small rug, and put their children to sleep.
They sat on a piece of cardboard next to the rug, contented with being under a roof after too many nights on the streets.
“We are so glad to have somewhere where we are safe, where the children wouldn’t get wet in the rain or nobody wouldn’t come and take what we have when we sleeping.”
While Guardian Media spoke to the couple, a good Samaritan who had heard of the family’s plight arrived with a mattress. Roopchan gladly accepted it, thanking the woman and her son.
“We got a good few calls since last night (Saturday) from Ms Giselle’s friends, people calling to say they want to help us.”
Roopchan said his greatest hope is that his family will get somewhere to call home and he can get a job.
“All we want is somewhere for the kids to be comfortable, they could play and sleep and be safe. Once they good and I get a job, we will take care of ourself again. That is all I want.”
Guardian Media attempted to contact the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services and Minister Cox yesterday but was unable to.
Anyone wishing to assist the family can contact them at 471-6715.