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Heating up the homeless issue.

As previous efforts at clearing the homeless from the nation’s streets have proved time and again, the easiest thing to do is to arrest people for vagrancy. What’s been consistently missing is the kind of social services support and humane administration that makes sense of dozens of different life stories and attempts to chart a course that compassionately sorts them out.
Published: 
Monday, November 29, 2010

To hear him talk about the decision to round up vagrants in Port-of-Spain, Mayor Louis Lee Sing is arguably passionate and concerned about his city and safety on the streets. The cleanup action, portrayed as being in the public’s interest, was said to have captured illicit drugs and an intimidating array of crude weapons which were offered to the media as visual evidence of the looming threat that unwashed, dazed citizens posed to their better off fellow men on the city streets. Since then, the newly elected Mayor has chosen other windmills to tilt at, arguing that the proliferation of mas camps in Port-of-Spain needed review and that an immediate halt should to be called to the issuing of bar licenses in Woodbrook and St James.

Mayor Lee Sing evidently feels that these free enterprise initiatives in the entertainment sector pose a grave threat to the driveways of the elderly, while the looming threat of weak bladders and bowels in the early hours of the morning after these businesses close their doors is so grave that it needs to be urgently monitored and controlled. As the architects of any cleanup drive will attest, gathering detritus, whether mankind or man-made, brings to the fore the issue of what is to be done with what’s collected. A real initiative to change a living environment must acknowledge that moving the homeless from one site to another almost never makes a real difference.
The 2009 Piparo project to relocate vagrants from city streets to the New Horizons Rehabilitation Centre quickly came to an end when the people of Piparo argued that they did not want to forcibly inherit the problems of the nation’s city centres.

There needs to be a comprehensive and sensible approach to the problems with vagrancy that plague this country’s city centres.
This is not a problem only for Port-of-Spain, and the solutions cannot only be driven by the efforts and enthusiasm of a single Mayor.
Indeed, the problem would seem to rightly rest in the realm of Minister of the People, Glenn Ramadharsingh, who has clearly articulated his interest in stepping forward to put the resources of the state behind the solution of pressing social problems.
At least part of the ongoing problem with the earnest hand wringing over the homeless in Trinidad and Tobago is the persistent misunderstanding that there is one solution to people who have ended up on the streets from various paths in life. In the most recent sweep of vagrants on Thursday night, one man argued that he was a pineapple farmer from Morvant who was arrested by policemen while sheltering from the rain. Others have been abandoned by their families or simply run out of support or relatives capable of supporting them. There are drug addicts on the streets as well as the mentally ill and lumping all these people together under one rubric and attempting to implement a single action to “process” them is a cruel mistake.

There are laws on the books which allow police officers to arrest people for extended loitering and to remove them from the street, but this has, historically, proven to be a very temporary solution to a long term problem.As previous efforts at clearing the homeless from the nation’s streets have proved time and again, the easiest thing to do is to arrest people for vagrancy.

What’s been consistently missing is the kind of social services support and humane administration that makes sense of dozens of different life stories and attempts to chart a course that compassionately sorts them out.It is a simple truth of our progress as a nation that the way we deal with the least among us is the clearest measure of our capacity for compassion as a society.

Unfortunately, the actions taken over the last week against the homeless populating Port-of-Spain’s sidewalks fail that test with depressing thoroughness.

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