‘Humanitarian crisis’ grows as thousands depend on charity

Charith Heman, head chef at Abacus restaurant, makes soups for a growing number of people at ARK's soup kitchen at Deckers.

Grand Cayman is facing a growing ‘humanitarian crisis’, with thousands of people now dependent on emergency food kitchens that have sprung up at empty restaurants across the island.

As demand increases because of unemployment associated with COVID-19 and the measures taken to suppress its spread, charities and restaurants say they are struggling to cope.

Tara Nielsen, of Acts of Random Kindness, said volunteers with the organisation are now delivering meals, soups or food vouchers to around 2,000 people.

Jennifer West, of Meals on Wheels, said demand for its service has doubled. It now delivers to more than 450 homes.

Resilience Cayman, a newly formed community organisation partnering with the Chamber of Commerce, reported more than 6,000 requests for assistance in its first few weeks of operation. As of Monday, it had approved more than 1,000 applications for food support.

Churches, food banks and other helping agencies have also been inundated with new requests for assistance.

Government has said the Needs Assessment Unit is supporting more people than ever – “957 families or 3,828 people”, according to statistics given at a press briefing last month.

Some help is also available to foreign workers who apply to the Ministry of Community Affairs for assistance.

But many are still slipping through the cracks.

Nielsen said the burden of feeding the hungry was largely falling on the charitable sector.

ARK has set up a soup kitchen at Deckers restaurant on West Bay Road and the Lighthouse restaurant in Breakers and helps fund The Wharf’s meal programme. It has also partnered with restaurants around the island to provide meals to those who need them. But, she said, the service is totally dependent on donations.

“This is going to be unsustainable if numbers swell and swell as they are doing. It is like a tsunami that is about to crash,” she said.

“This is definitely a humanitarian crisis and it is up to non-profits to meet the need.”

She acknowledged that support was available through government, but said this was often not enough for families to sustain themselves.

“The process also takes time, often weeks, so what do they do while they wait to be approved? They would go hungry if it wasn’t for soup kitchens.”

For expatriates who apply, government is giving a $150 food voucher and has said it will consider other support as necessary, but again this is often not enough to meet the need. ARK is currently covering rent and utilities, for example, for some of the Nicaraguans left stranded after an evacuation flight was cancelled.

‘People need food now’

Nielsen added that some people just did not have access to WiFi or were unable or ill-equipped to manage the application process for government support – particularly if they don’t speak English well.

“The system is not set up to work quickly in a crisis,” she said. “People need food now and we are trying to fill those gaps.”

With so many charities and restaurants stepping up, she acknowledged that some people may get help from two different sources. But she said this was ‘few and far between’.

Meals pile up at The Wharf for distribution.

She said the heads of all the non-profits were working together to avoid duplication, but added, “We can’t all do the kind of due diligence we did before. These are people that have nothing to eat; it is time to stop worrying about the small percentage that might take advantage.”

West, at Meals on Wheels, has the same attitude.

If someone gets meals from two sources instead of one, she believes that is not the end of the world.

In many cases, she said, her volunteers had found that when people asked for more, they were usually asking on behalf of a neighbour or a friend.

Meals on Wheels focusses specifically on the elderly, disabled and vulnerable but has expanded to help their families too in cases where there was no income in the household.

“There is no grandad in this world that is going to watch his grandchild go hungry while he eats,” she said.

West said she hoped to see demand decrease as different sectors get back to work, but she is concerned that lay-offs in the tourism industry could only just be beginning.

“It feels like things could get worse before they get better,” she said.

The Wharf targets 500 meals a day

Luciano De Riso, manager of Grand Old House and The Wharf restaurants, agrees.

“Right now is only the beginning,” he said.

The restaurant has been providing daily meals to 200 people. It stepped that up to 300-a-day this week with support from Resilience Cayman, which is covering its bill for produce.

De Riso said his chefs could ramp up to 500 meals every day, if they get enough support.

Chefs Thushara Siriwardana, from Grand Old House, and Christian Reiter, from The Wharf, aim to ramp up to 500 meals a day.

Home Gas has waived charges for the kitchen and Progressive Distributors is helping, but CUC and water bills are still a significant ongoing expense.

De Riso said he was not sure how long the service could continue without more structured support. He expects demand to increase over the next few months – even if the domestic economy reopens.

He said the restaurants would not be able to reopen with full staff until tourists return and many other businesses, including hotels and tour operators, will not be able to pay their employees for a long time.

He said there were people from all over the world that could not get home, that needed help now.

“We can make 500 meals a day if we get the support. We have the will to do it but we need support.”

Markus Mueri, of NM Ventures, which owns several restaurants including Deckers, where the ARK soup kitchen is located, said the demand was staggering. On Thursday of this week alone, more than 1,000 meals were served out of the Deckers kitchen.

“Last week, we served over 3,200 people,” he said. “I have never been involved in anything like this, this is rough.

“Even if people can go back to work, the number of people without food is growing.”

Deckers is running a corporate sponsorship programme where people can underwrite the cost of food at $8.50 per meal.

Regional hubs

ARK’s Nielsen said she was trying to get coordination between various restaurants to create hubs in different districts that people can reach on foot.

Tukka and The Lighthouse restaurants have begun providing meals in the eastern districts, and she wants to partner with others to allow people all over the island to walk in and collect their meals instead of relying on deliveries.

Giuseppe Gatta, owner of The Lighthouse, in Breakers, said the restaurant was trying to play a role, despite having no income coming in.

At its food kitchen, The Lighthouse provides around 120 meals to ARK twice weekly.

The Lighthouse has partnered with ARK to provide food in the eastern districts.

Gatta said there were many Caymanians in the locality that the restaurant was helping. He said he and his wife support local families through the animal charity PAWS and many of those same people were now in need of support.

ARK, which contributes to the costs along with an anonymous donor, is seeking to help a growing number of unemployed work permit holders in the eastern districts including Filipinos, Cubans, Hondurans and Jamaicans left without jobs and no means to get home.

Gatta said the number of people needing help was going up, as those who had lost jobs in the tourism sector found their last pay cheque running out. He said the restaurant would continue to help as long as it could afford to do so, with the support of ARK’s donors.

“If we have to stop, these people will have to go to government to ask for food,” Gatta said.

Premier: NAU provides ‘full range’ of services

Asked about the humanitarian crisis at the government press briefing on Monday, Premier Alden McLaughlin said there was substantial support available to Caymanians though the NAU.

“The NAU provides a full range of services to thousands of people,” he said.

“Not just food vouchers, we pay rent, we pay other outgoings – the point is you have to make a case to the NAU and many people simply don’t want to go through that process.”

Asked about expatriate workers who may be in need, he said the Ministry of Community Affairs was providing support on request to work permit holders and he had not had a report of “any unusual challenges”.

He added, “If people are in need, government will step in, regardless of whether you are Caymanian or not. Everybody has got to live, everybody has to have a roof over their head and something to eat.”

The premier assured anyone that was seeking aid that government would not try to run them out of the island.

He said, “I have heard anecdotally that some people are afraid to come and ask for assistance because they fear if they do so, government will insist they leave … that is not the case.”

While he said government wants people, particularly in the hospitality industry who have lost their jobs, to return to their home countries where possible, it is not enforcing this as a condition of support. He added that people who were out of work but were still needed by their employers in the long term were an important part of Cayman’s economy.

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