With its bright yellow façade and palm-fringed lawn, the Sunshine Suites is an inviting destination to holiday makers looking for a relaxing slice of paradise.
For some of the hotel’s guests, however, the reality is very different. They are not here for sun, sea and sand. They are here because they have nowhere else to live.
Ms. McLean, who asked to be identified only by her surname, lived in the hotel for more than a month in a small single room, with her pregnant 17-year-old daughter.
At that time, they were one of three families temporarily housed in the hotel while they searched for an apartment within the Needs Assessment’s budget for rental assistance, $800-a-month in their case.
The situation became more desperate last week when Ms. McLean’s daughter gave birth. She and the baby were released from hospital to the news that they had finally found a place to live.
“This is what $800 a month gets you in Cayman,” she told the Cayman Compass as she surveyed the cramped single-room apartment above a bar in central George Town.
It is smaller than the hotel room. There is just enough room for a double bed and the baby’s crib. Noise from the bar keeps them awake at night and a homeless man has been sleeping on the balcony outside.
The McLeans were forced to move out of their rented home in Bodden Town when the family they shared the house and expenses with left, and they could no longer afford the rent.
Since then, Ms. McLean has made calls and sent emails to more than 100 landlords advertising rooms for rent.
She was unable to find anything within NAU’s $800-per-month budget where the landlord was prepared to take NAU clients. She found a two-bed place for $1,200 but officials said they could not break policy to pay the difference, an extra $4,800 a year. A smaller place, for $1,000 a month ($2,400 extra per year), was also vetoed by the NAU, according to Ms. McLean.
Instead, the NAU paid for a hotel room until she could find somewhere within the correct range.
A single room at Sunshine Suites costs around $100 a night – an estimated $3,500 for the 35 nights the McLeans lived there.
Ms. McLean kept a written track of her efforts to find an apartment. The responses have a familiar ring.
“Sorry, we don’t accept welfare …”
“Sorry, no NAU clients …”
“Sorry, not at this time.”
One landlord spells it out clearly: “Social services are known to take a long time to pay and we have a mortgage to consider.”
Several other mothers who spoke to the Compass said the NAU’s reputation for failing to pay on time had hampered their quest to find somewhere to stay. NAU Director Tamara Hurlston acknowledged that the unit was having difficulty finding landlords to rent to its clients.
She said processing a check was a “coordinated effort” involving multiple government departments, and the NAU typically advises landlords to expect a 21-day waiting period from the signing of a contract to the payment of the first check.
She said the problem was exacerbated on occasions by the failure of renters or landlords to submit their paperwork in a timely manner.
Ms. McLean last worked in the laundry room at an island hotel, but she took too many sick days and was unable to keep the job past the probationary period. She has had numerous health and mobility issues over the years and struggles to hold down work, she says.
Her daughter is waiting for her GCSE exam results from Cayman Islands Further Education Centre and is taking part in the Passport to Success program. She says she needs money to pay for the exam certificates before the results will be released.
Now they have another mouth to feed.
Ms. McLean says monthly payments of $800 for rent and $220 for food vouchers simply aren’t enough for them to get by.
The nonprofit Acts of Random Kindness brought gift certificates to buy food and supplies for the baby, but beyond what the charity can provide, there is no additional support for the child. The teenage mother says she plans to look for work once the baby settles. She says she has been told she cannot apply for assistance on her own until she is 18.
“If I didn’t need help, I wouldn’t ask for help. It feels like some people can get help and others can’t. There are drug addicts getting more support than we are,” she says.
Like many of the mothers who use the Needs Assessment Unit, Ms. McLean says she finds the process humiliating and invasive.
“I don’t feel like I put myself in this position. It is my health. I didn’t ask for this.
“They look down on us, like it is their money. They make you feel like you are nobody.”
Her story is not unique.
Tara Nielsen, of Acts of Random Kindness, says it is common for landlords to refuse to take NAU clients.
She says the rental assistance, when it is provided, is often insufficient.
“For those who get approved for rent, they have to look for something in the $800-$850 range. These are girls with one or two kids, sometimes more,” she says.
She sees both sides of the equation. Some mothers are genuinely trying to build a better life for themselves and their children, while others become apathetic.
“We have helped many young women significantly, and some of them have grabbed the helping hand and turned their lives around,” Ms. Nielsen said.
Another mother, who asked to remain anonymous, said getting by on assistance from the Needs Assessment Unit is a constant challenge.
She was out of work after being charged with a criminal offense in relation to her previous employment. She was eventually found not guilty but was unable to find work during the lengthy judicial process.
She is working again but does not earn enough to pay for accommodation for her and her teenage daughter.
“I stay with my mum but the house is in bad condition with a leaking roof,” she says. “My daughter is now a teenager but we still sleep in the same bed.
“We have to move out while repairs are done and we are trying to find somewhere on the NAU budget.
“I appreciate what I am given, but there is nothing you can get in Cayman for $800, particularly if you have a child.”
She has gone to three different departments to seek support for repairs to her mother’s home, rental assistance and health insurance for her daughter. She has to return every three months to the NAU to submit new paperwork.
“I feel like I spend half my life down there,” she says. “I am happy there is someone there to help, but they make it so difficult. There is so much red tape, it is discouraging.”
She believes more could be done to make life easier for women who are trying to help themselves, for example, by approving services for six months at a time and allowing them to submit paperwork online.
She gets some help from her child’s father and resents having to take him to court for maintenance payments to access NAU services. She says he is in and out of work, but helps out when he can. She does not want to see him in trouble with the police for failing to meet a court ordered payment schedule.
“He is more use to me on the road. We have a good relationship and he does try to help.”
She says, for many single women, even if they have a job, it is hard to support a child in Cayman.
“Everything I have goes on my daughter,” she says. “For a mum with just one child, the minimum I would need to be making is $2,500 a month to get by – not a lot of us are making that – not even close.”