Allen Hank Bodden stands on the threshold of his home – a ramshackle patchwork of timber and tin, mounted on cinder blocks. He built it himself from pieces of plywood he collected on beaches across Grand Cayman after Hurricane Ivan.
A generator provides intermittent power and a large plastic cistern ensures a semi-reliable supply of rainwater. Hurricane straps secured by an anchor rod help keep the roof secure in case of a storm.
A sign warns “beware of the dog,” though the threat is undermined by the sight of a playful mutt skipping contentedly on a long, loose chain among scattered furniture and appliances.
“We were paying rent and I couldn’t afford it any longer so I built my own place,” says 62-year-old Mr. Bodden, who lives here with his wife. “I built it myself with no help. It took a long time, maybe two months.”
Scrapped together from collected and donated materials, Mr. Bodden’s home is a remarkable feat of resourcefulness and MacGyver-esque ingenuity. It is not unique in this part of George Town.
Hundreds of self-made homes, some without a power or water connection, have sprung up over the years on the winding side streets that feed off Eastern Avenue.
Many were built before the advent of modern planning legislation in the Cayman Islands, others have been quietly added as extensions to existing properties forming sprawling family homesteads.
Matthew Leslie, who grew up on these side streets, estimates there are around 2,000 people in the Cayman Islands living in unfit, potentially unsafe housing, many of them in clusters around the Rock Hole, Windsor Park and Swamp areas of George Town.
“This is our answer to poverty in Cayman,” he says. “People live here for years and don’t even know this side of Cayman exists.”
Mr. Leslie, manager of the Cayman Islands Brewery, has, through his large social network, emerged as a community first responder in emergency situations. When a fire ripped through three homes in Cruz Lane earlier this month following an alleged arson attack, he coordinated community donations and found temporary accommodation for several people left homeless.
He did the same last year for a much larger family who saw their adjoining timber homes in Windsor Park burn to the ground in a matter of minutes.
“What worries me is that next time we could be talking about a fatality,” he says.
“We have to look at these houses and these tenement yards a lot more closely and see what we can do. If someone falls asleep and leaves a cigarette burning, that’s a whole block that could go up in flames.”
In Cruz Lane, a charred and ragged curtain still hangs from the window frame of a solitary wall, still standing amid the wreckage of the fire. Next door Linford Webb, 55, is making some repairs to his own home, also damaged in the blaze.
“We were about 20 when we built these houses,” he says, as he surveys the rubble where his brother Vann Webb and members of his extended family lived until the fire. “We were among the first to build in this area. I still feel safe here. This house has been around a long time.”
Edlin Moore, an electrical contractor and political field coordinator, who has lived in the area for decades, says many of the homes were built in an era of lax planning enforcement or had been discreetly developed as additions to sturdier properties.
Those seeking to assist tread a difficult balance. Concern over the state of some of the housing is tempered by recognition that many people have nowhere else to go. “My personal opinion is that government should start to take a serious look at some of these homes,” said Mr. Moore.
“You have to take into account that a lot of those people that live in these housing don’t have the means and ways to refurbish. It would have to be the government that takes that initiative and makes sure these homes are safe.”
The homes here are varied. Some are sturdy and neat, flower baskets hanging in the awnings of A-frame roofs. Others seem vulnerable and temporary, patched up with whatever materials happen to be available.
“This is a forgotten part of George Town,” says Sophia Bush as she walks a well-worn path between breadfruit trees and pink-flowered coral vines to the blackened, patched up home she shares with her 21-year-old son.
Her younger children are scattered in safer accommodations with godparents and family members.
There’s been no power supply to the building since the neighboring property, which she inherited from her parents, burned to the ground in 2013. The structure was finally demolished last year when Canadian entrepreneur Tim Best, who is attempting to bring an Ice Palace development to the capital, helped assemble a volunteer crew to bring it down.
Ms. Bush has salvaged some furniture from the wreckage in Cruz Lane to continue the running repairs to her own fire-damaged property.
“I don’t need anyone to build me a mansion, but I’d really like some help to get this place fixed up and the power back on,” she said. “We can fix these places up ourselves if we have the materials.”
Amid the struggles, the area bustles with life. The ringing bells of approaching bikes chime in the narrow lanes, people relax on outdoor sofas. Sometimes at night, Sophia’s son entertains his friends by pulling wheelies in the old and rusted wheelchair that used to belong to her father.
“I like this neighborhood. It’s rough, it’s tough, but I lived here all my life. I don’t know anywhere else,” she says.
An advocate for her community, Ms. Bush says she has asked, without success, for new street lighting and a community officer to deter a handful of drug dealers and addicts that give the area a bad name.
“We’ve got it hard here,” she says, “Sometimes I feel like giving up but I know there are people far worse off than me.”
On Watlers Drive, another winding tributary to Eastern Avenue, known locally as Dog City, a network of brightly painted plywood forms the façade of a maze of homes under rusted zinc roofs.
Power lines snake across cramped alleys to provide a jerry-rigged electricity supply to a row of cabin-style homes.
A woman rents rooms, lights included, for $300 a month.
She remembers swimming to safety through these alleyways as the storm surge swept through Dog City during Hurricane Ivan. Random boats deposited by the storm are still scattered amid banana and mango trees around the neighborhood.
In one yard, multiple rooms feed off a timber corridor that provides shade from the sun.
If one room catches fire, she acknowledges, all of them would likely burn. She exhales deeply. “Boy that would be a pretty big disaster.”
Tina Choy, a fire prevention officer with the Cayman islands Fire and Rescue Service, says a key concern is the lack of smoke alarms and fire extinguishers in many homes.
“Cayman does have a number of wooden structures throughout the three islands. Working smoke detectors and serviced fire extinguishers are key and the first step in the right direction toward fire safety in the home,” she said in response to questions from the Compass.
Concerns run beyond the obvious fire risk.
Michael Myles, government’s at-risk youth officer, said such buildings are spread across the island, from Hutland in North Side to East End and West Bay.
“Many of the children and their families I work with, live in substandard housing,” he said. “Another issue arising out of this type of housing is that children are becoming sexualized faster. They are often in the same room with their parents while they engage in sex. A lot of this behavior is played out in our schools, oftentimes towards their peers.”
Government allocated just over $550,000 in the current 18-month budget for “minor housing repairs and other assistance,” and also provides rental assistance through the Needs Assessment Unit.
The primary mandate of the National Housing Development Trust, which built 94 homes between 2010 and 2013 is home ownership, though it occasionally provides temporary accommodation in its units for displaced families.
Julio Ramos, general manager of the Trust, said, “We are mindful that not everyone would qualify for affordable housing as there are individuals that do not earn enough to qualify to purchase a house and there are those that are affected by social issues … Social housing has been and continues to be an issue in Cayman that needs to be addressed at a government level.”
For Mr. Leslie, the issue of unfit and unsafe housing seems to only register a blip on the public and political radar in the aftermath of a catastrophe like the fires in Cruz Lane or Windsor Park. He believes a more concerted and sustained effort is needed.
“Right now the only time anyone gets assistance is after there is a disaster. We need to establish a fund and clear it up – repair the homes that can be repaired, and move those that can’t. Caymanians don’t need to be rich, but they deserve to be comfortable and to live somewhere that is safe.”