The issue of homelessness in Port-of-Spain has once again gained national attention, as the Prime Minister announced plans to revitalise the capital city.
On Monday, Dr Keith Rowley unveiled some stellar and ambitious plans to remove the capital city out of what he described as “urban decay.” This decay, the PM said, included depopulation, abandonment and decrepit infrastructure, unemployment, destitution and high levels of crime in the capital. PM Rowley also referenced poor sanitation in Port-of-Spain, going as far as to dub the Queen Janelle Commissiong Street (formerly Queen Street) at the ‘toilet of the city’.
But no plan, small or grandeur, for the nation’s capital can move forward if the issue of homelessness is not decisively addressed.
During his tenure as the capital’s mayor from 2010 to 2013, Louis Lee Sing’s main bugbear was the vagrancy problem. Seven years after he demitted office, the nation is no closer to removing the homeless from its capital.
Instead, according to present Port-of-Spain Mayor Joel Martinez, there are some 400 people who now call the streets of the capital their home.
While for some, removing vagrants may be a matter of optics, it is clear that taking the homeless off the streets also begs the question of how the nation treats with its weakest and most vulnerable citizens.
Aside from former mayor Lee Sing’s efforts in 2011, which saw 177 street dwellers rounded up and charged with loitering, several other plans were subsequently launched to remove and rehabilitate the socially displaced.
Minister of the People and Social Development Glenn Ramadharsingh attempted to remove 200 vagrants off the streets of the capital in time for Christmas 2012. It failed miserably, as many of the homeless went into hiding.
A recent move last year by present Mayor Martinez, with his ‘move along’ policy, attempted to have the homeless evaluated and sent to the Centre for the Socially Displaced for help but that too was stalled by legal action on behalf of the homeless.
But from all these efforts over the years, it is clear strong laws need to be drafted and implemented that would see proper assessment, treatment and rehabilitation of street dwellers in the first instance.
Back in 1975, the People’s National Movement (PNM) government enacted the Mental Health Act Chapter 28:02 to address dangers to the public and the needs of the homeless. The act must now be updated and changed to tackle the needs of the nation as it relates to street dwellers.
It is no longer good enough to send the homeless to St Ann’s Psychiatric Hospital or provide them with a meal and pocket change for a few days.
What is clear is that treating with homelessness requires comprehensive psychosocial support complete with compassion and patience. Anything less will be nothing more than a band aid on a bullet wound. In all on this, however, one must remember that we are all susceptible to the frailties of the human mind and spirit.