Out of sight and, in many cases, out of mind on the winding back streets of Grand Cayman, many families are living in crisis.
Non-profit organisation Acts of Random Kindness estimates that thousands of people could be living in unsafe and unfit housing.
In a special report, the Cayman Compass has teamed up with ARK to shine a light on the level of need that exists just beneath the surface in our society.
In some of the most extreme cases, children are growing up without access to power or water in rundown timber buildings still damaged from the impact of Hurricane Ivan almost 20 years ago.
Others are living hand-to-mouth in simple structures passed on through the generations since the 1940s.
The families featured in this series are the lucky ones. They are getting help from ARK, which has support from the R3 Cayman Foundation, for a major expansion of its ‘Cayman CASA’ programme to renovate dilapidated homes.
The non-profit focusses on cases where there are children, elderly or sick people in the home.
It has raised more than $100,000 from the community and R3 has agreed to match that funding, up to a total of $250,000.
If they hit their minimum target, the charity will have a fighting fund of $500,000 to improve the homes and the lives of a number of families.
ARK’s Tara Nielsen told the Cayman Compass, “It’s a big problem and we’re trying to work towards really sweeping across the island and helping as many families as we can but it takes a lot of funding, it takes a community, it takes the private sector really to get on board.
“I hope that by sharing some of these stories, it will inspire people to help.”
Woody Foster, of the R3 group, said it had agreed to match funding to help ARK and its partners rebuild and repair homes as part of its mission to support disaster response and resilience.
“There are a lot of houses in Cayman in disrepair. There are people living in squalid conditions with issues that date back to Hurricane Ivan.
Cayman’s Hidden Housing Crisis
“Part of our remit is disaster response. If it is caused by Ivan, we have to deal with that, even if it was 17 years ago.”
He said some of the repairs were also about resilience and protection against future storms. Homes with leaking roofs and mould in the walls need to be reinforced in time for the worst of hurricane season.
Foster said the serious housing issues that plague elements of the community are often invisible to many people who call the islands home.
“We might not have some of the extreme poverty that other countries do, but Cayman has poverty and a lot of people don’t see it.”
Foster said ARK and R3 are trying to be part of the solution. Government has its own housing-repair programmes and he believes the private and public sector can work together to make inroads with some of the worst-impacted homes.
“There is no Utopian way of dealing with it. We can do a couple of houses, government can do a couple and together we slowly chip away at the problem.
“There is so much need out there, there are education issues, drug issues, it all takes money to fix and we can all do only so much. We are chipping away at it piece by piece.”
‘This is a major problem’
Even with potentially $500,000 to spend, Nielsen knows it won’t be enough. She has a waiting list of around 50 of the most urgent cases and many more families are in need.
She would like to see duty concessions for ARK’s projects and is hoping that donations will continue coming in to allow the organisation and its partners to help as many people as possible.
“Based on my own personal experience over the past 15 years, I think there’s a major problem with housing here and the standard of living that children are growing up in,” she said.
“You have homes that have been ravaged by storms and subsequent flooding and just by economic hardship.”
She said the cost of building materials and the general cost of living made it hard for families to prioritise home repairs even when the roof was falling in.
Nielsen said children had grown up their whole lives in houses without bathrooms or with mould dating back to Ivan. In some cases, the families that ARK helps have contributed to their own problems. But Nielsen says the charity assesses people based on their need, especially when there are children involved.
ARK’s mission is to ensure that everyone has basic shelter, utilities and safe structures to live in.
“Those are basic things that everyone should have, I think, and it’s possible we can achieve it. But we all need to come together to make it happen. And it is happening. All these home renovations in the last 15 years have been done through the kindness of the community.”