I was riding home around midnight after buying a handful of hot spicy short eats in the drizzling rain, when I spotted what seemed like a human body lying on the pavement of a street near the local market in capital Male’
Curious, I asked my friend to stop the bike and walked closer to confirm my impression. Under a thin piece of ragged bed sheet – to my astonishment – lay a wrinkled old lady shivering herself to sleep.
That was the first encounter with Kadheeja Adam (or Shiraanee, as she prefers to be called), an elderly woman living alone on the streets of Male’.
For almost five years, she says, her home has been the streets surrounding the market. She survives on handouts from the local vendors, and occasional offerings from sympathetic passersby. She showers in the pay toilets around the block. Dressed modestly in dirty and frayed clothes, she keeps her few belongings tucked closely to her as she sleeps on the sheltered corner of a storehouse gate near the market.
Shiraanee says recently some of those clothes were mistakenly taken away as trash by the municipal officials one night, but she is happy because her favorite tin full of areca nuts was not taken.
“I don’t have anywhere else to go,” Shiraanee replies bluntly each time I inquire why she is living on the streets.
Judging by her impaired vision, frail face and emerging grey hair, she appears to be in her 50s or 60s. But the most telling sign of age is her deteriorating mental capability.
Shiraanee says her house on Kandumaavaidhoo island of Haa Dhaalu Atoll was destroyed in the 2004 tsunami, forcing her to seek refuge in relatives’ homes – where she was never wanted.
“I moved from island to island. Stayed with some relatives and people I know. But nobody wanted me. So I came to Male’ on a ferry to live with my daughter,” Shiraanee said.
Shiraanee claims her daughter Aminath lives in Male’ with her husband and kids, and that she was planning to live with her. “But there was no space for me.”
When asked if she moved out or was abandoned by her daughter, Shiraanee does not respond. She claims not to know where her daughter lives anymore.
“I don’t know where she lives. They moved to a new house people say. She used to come ask for money before. Not anymore,” she said.
A few local vendors at the market who spoke to Minivan News said that it was rumored that Shiraanee is very stubborn, and moved out on her own to live on the street. I asked why.
“How do we know?” they responded. “There are so many people who are living on the streets nowadays.”
Distressing but true, Shiraanee happens to be just one among the growing number of “homeless” in Male’ – an upsetting trend which is quietly being “accepted” as a part of the society, despite the fact that maltreatment of the elderly is illegal and also considered to be among the greatest sins in Islam.
To the local fishermen and vendors at the market area lines of beggars, mostly old people of both genders, is a common annoyance.
No less than 10 people sit near the market to beg everyday from dawn, scattering away at nightfall.
Market vendors say many beggars have families or houses in the capital. “I really don’t understand why they are living like this. Some of them even refuse to go when their children come to get them,” said one vendor.
But he acknowledged that an unfortunate few like Shiraanee who have nowhere else to go spend their nights on the streets, in open parks or hidden in empty buildings – at the mercy of the cold nights and hooligans.
Some beggars claim being robbed or harassed by boys on the street.
“I have not been attacked,” Shiraane said. “When I give them some money they go away.”
One beggar said a Male’ shop owner used to pay him some small sum to sleep next to the shop and keep the burglars away.
“I get some cash or free stuff sometimes when I sleep there [near the shop]. But the shopkeeper hired a watchman later. So I beg near the market during the day and sleep in the fisherman’s park,” the 70 year-old man said.
Police are apparently “useless” when it comes to resolving the situation.
During the two nights I sat with Shiraanee listening to her story, policemen patrolling the area came to question what I was doing out there. So I responded with questions pretending to be a concerned citizen: “Why don’t you question the woman sleeping on the street? Shouldn’t you do something about this?”
The policemen said that it was a “common” problem and that they have requested the people not to sleep on the roads.
“Some of them [people living on streets] come from islands. So we identify them we take them to boats and ask them to go back. But the next day we see them here [in the market] again,” one policeman explained. “There is nothing we can do. We can’t keep them under our custody. So we refer the case to the ministry.”
However, the absence of an effective initiative to address the queue of beggars or old people living on Male’s streets indicates that the plight of homeless people is far from a resolution.
As opposed to most countries providing shelters for the needy, Maldives does not have any existing shelters or elderly care centers – therefore, hope that homeless will find a safe place to live seems bleak.
The government-operated “Home for People with Special Needs” on Guraidhoo island of Kaafu Atoll rarely accepts the destitute elderly; authorities have repeatedly pointed out that the facility – which is already under-equipped and cramped – is meant for the disabled, rather than the homeless.
Last year, the cabinet approved a resolution to allow private parties to develop residential home for the elderly under the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) scheme, but progress remains unclear.
At a time when social issues such as sexual abuse, gender discrimination and drugs make headlines, and abandoned babies elicit public outrage, should not the misery of the abandoned elderly receive equal attention?
Or must we wait until the night when a passerby finds the dead body of a homeless man or woman lying cold in the street?