Portrait of a struggling artist

Since he served a prison sentence and re-joined society seven years ago, Roderick Brincat has struggled with homelessness, and hunger has been a daily companion. Now, he hopes that his first exhibition will help him take the first step towards having his own home, writes Ramona Depares.

A few months after he served his prison sentence, Roderick Brincat was so hungry that one morning he decided this would be the day he went back to prison, where he would at least be assured of three square meals a day and a roof over his head.

“I was ready to mess things up again, I was so close. I had not had anything to eat in days and I was not sure how this was better than prison,” he tells me.

This would not have been the first time that hunger made him snap – one of his three prison sentences came about after he threw a punch at a priest.

“I had approached him to beg for some small change to buy something to eat. He insulted me and something in me snapped, I punched him,” he says candidly, explaining that the punch landed him a prison sentence due to previous convictions.

Mr Brincat has spent a total of five-and-a-half years in prison. All his crimes, he says, stemmed from the fact that he had no regular employment and no means to feed himself.

He is the first one to say that he is no angel, but it is evident that this is not a man who has had an easy life. A difficult childhood and family problems meant that at 13 years of age he was employed as a manual labourer for 10 Maltese liri a week. A heroin addiction followed, which was to continue in adulthood all the way through prison and later.

“After I left prison I lost my way. I tried many times to find employment, but what I was being offered was not for me. And I had started using heroin again,” Roderick says.

At one point, he was shooting so much drugs that he admits to being surprised that today he still has the use of his legs.

“My foot was one gaping hole,” he describes, referring to the practice of injecting drugs in the foot when one has run out of veins.

Although he had been promised assistance before leaving prison, he says that he quickly found that most of it was “just talk” and that no long-term solutions were in the offing.

“Some of the prison officials did try to help me, but nothing was happening. I started renting at first, but without a very good income it is impossible to keep up payments. Before too long I was sleeping rough, moving from acquaintance to acquaintance, staying with whoever would have me.”

I’m counting on my paintings to buy me a roof on my head

At one point, he wound up sleeping on someone’s roof. At another stage, he was offered ‘free’ accommodation, only for his host to literally snatch out of his hand any meagre amount of money that he made.

“The only people who really offered tangible help were those at Mid-Dlam għad-Dawl. They offered me shelter for a month and did their best to find a long-term plan for me. But it just wasn’t happening. That is how I wound up hoping to go back to prison,” he recalls.

And yet, Mr Brincat is someone who values his freedom. He remembers leaving prison for the last time and the feeling of joy that the simple act of catching the bus brought him.

“The first time I was walking freely in the sunshine again, the fact that I could just hear the conversations happening around me on a bus ride… I just burst out into happy laughter. I wonder what people thought, seeing me laugh on my own.”

Then, the day dawned when he was ready to snap again – until a chance encounter in the street turned his life round on its head. The encounter was with Mark Mallia, an established artist who was in prison at the same time as Mr Brincat. 

“We had struck up a bit of a friendship and, when he saw me in such a bad state, he took me under his wing. He remembered that I used to paint, asked to see my work and from then on, I realised that this was what I wanted to do with my life. Art.”

During his time in prison, Roderick had already started painting. Now, this aspect of his life flourished – he started seeking advice, structuring his work and developing his style towards a definite end: holding his own exhibition.

“Through Mark I eventually met Claude Camilleri, who helped me realise that this exhibition could hold the key to me breaking the cycle that had made me homeless.”

Mr Camilleri too enjoys a solid reputation within artistic circles, his work as curator and manager at a local art gallery having helped launch many an artist. The two stayed in contact, until Mr Brincat got in touch with the words that Mr Camilleri wanted to hear: he was ready for his first solo exhibition.

“Claude has been instrumental in helping me find a venue, this beautiful house in Valletta that has been kindly lent to me by another artist. Together we have catalogued my work, finalised the collection and devised the best way to show it,” he says.

The exhibition, which opens on Tuesday and runs through December, is the 32-year-old artist’s final bid at leaving a troubled past behind him and becoming a functioning part of society.

“I have worked very hard on this and Claude has spent a lot of time and energy on helping me make it happen. I hope that by the end of the exhibition, I will no longer fall within the category of ‘homeless’.”

The category of homelessness is widening even in Malta, where the traditional perception is that such problems do not exist.

Anthony Camilleri, the CEO of YMCA Malta, says that many circumstances contribute towards a person having to sleep rough. The voluntary organisation runs a shelter for homeless people.

“Currently, the main reason is family issues, such as arguments between couples, between siblings and/or between parents and children,” he says.

The next most common causes seen are financial troubles and migration, i.e. people who arrive in Malta and wind up sleeping rough.

“We have also had cases where people are homeless due to domestic violence, being discharged from hospital, termination from previous sheltered accommodation, and substance abuse.”

The numbers of cases where people leave their home after suffering emotional abuse, as well as stranded foreigners with nowhere to go, have increased to the extent they overcome the previous clusters.

The YMCA figures reflect what appears to be a growing phenomenon. This year, the organisation has dealt with 282 referrals, despite only catering for 30 residents.

“We have had to refuse people due to lack of space,” Mr Camilleri says.

“Up to the end of September, we accepted 102 new cases, which make up a total of 6,780 bed nights. Seven of these cases involved minors, while 33 cases were below the age of 24.”

People are referred to YMCA through various entities. Sometimes, they simply knock on the shelter’s door, holding a black garbage bag filled with some belongings.

“Homeless people in Malta have become like Nomads – they travel from one place to another to find shelter.”

The YMCA’s experience, he adds, does not show the full extent of the problem.

“How many referrals per day are other shelters and service-givers receiving? Society is becoming more liquid and not relationship-based. It is a worrying factor that family issues have become the leading cause of homelessness in 2018,” he concludes.

Meantime, he reminds those who may be in contact with someone who is sleeping rough to refrain from passing judgement and to call the YMCA on 27674278 or national helpline 179 to refer the matter. He also encourages anyone going through relationship problems to call on 9992 8625 for counselling and psychotherapy support.

Roderick Brincat’s exhibition runs between Saturday and December 21 at 138B, St Christopher’s Street, Valletta. Anyone wishing to offer donations or other support is invited to call Claude Camilleri on 99461598.