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August 16, 2013

Sierra Leone NGOs, Public Seek Help for Homeless

by Nina DeVries

Homeless people in Sierra Leone are crying out for help.

Last week a landslide caused a bridge to collapse in Freetown, the capital.  The colonial-era bridge, known as the King Jimmy bridge, killed six homeless people who were living under it.  Questions are now being asked about why homeless people do not get more assistance from the government.  

Leslie Pratt is remembering his friends who died in the landslide.  He lives in the area where the bridge gave way.  Pratt says it's an area where many homeless people live.

"I feel so bad because all of them are my best friends. We used to do things, share things in common," said Pratt.

The bridge was located along a waterfront in Freetown and was used by pedestrians and vehicles on a daily basis.  Also in the area was a market where people used to sell food, clothing and other items.

Mohamed Sesay is a tailor who works and lives in the area.

"People would usually come to my shop while browsing at the market, but now the market has been shut down because of the landslide.  I am worried about what that will do to my business and worry where all the other homeless people living in the area will now go, people like Pratt," said Sesay.
 
Pratt says he is trying to figure that out, too, along with the rest of his future.  Pratt is 25 and lost his parents during the country's civil war which lasted from 1991-2002.  He, like so many other young people, came to Freetown to find work but ended up homeless.

He says he knows there could be a better life out there but he does not know how to get it.  He hopes the government might be able to develop an education program for people in his situation.

And he's not the only one wanting to see change.

Francis Munu is inspector general of the Sierra Leone police.  His concern is that petty crime is on the rise, and he says much of it is committed by the homeless.

Munu says this is because so many people are coming into Freetown now from rural areas. He's urging the government to look at options for these migrants.

"And that they do something to encourage employment in the rural areas to reduce the rural urban migration, and encourage people to be more productive," said Munu.

Alimamy P. Koroma is minister of works, infrastructure and housing.  He says the ministry is aware of the problem and is currently working on a low-income housing program.

When asked if there will be any direct assistance for homeless people, such as establishing shelters, Koroma says it is challenging.

"Unfortunately, we are not there yet, and I only wish we could make such provision, but given other competing priorities in infrastructure, water, health, I think government is overstressed in terms of its means," said Koroma.

The most vulnerable of the homeless population in Freetown are the children.

According to the non-governmental organization Don Bosco Fambul, 2,500 children are homeless in the city.

The organization works directly with street kids, providing food, drinks and medical care.

Lothar Wagner is the director of the organization.  He says low-income housing may be a step in the right direction, but more needs to happen.

"Building alone will not help the people. [We must] be with them, to support them in their talents - many of them have many talents - to give them skill training and education, but for that you have to improve the whole country," said Wagner.

Back at the King Jimmy bridge, Red Cross officials say the search for any remaining bodies from the accident has been called off.