AS DONNA COX, the Minister of Social Development, turned the sod on a new $50 million facility to house the homeless, she also signalled the need to build up other measures to tackle this complex issue which, over many years, has shown no sign of abating.
“The Ministry of Social Development does not have the legislative authority to remove persons from the streets,” Ms Cox told reporters at Wednesday’s groundbreaking at South Quay, Port of Spain, not far from what has been the informal epicentre for street dwellers in our capital city. “As a result the Socially Displaced Persons Act (2000) is currently being reviewed to provide us with the authority to do so.”
The vintage of that legislation alone suggests the need for an update. The legal squabble between a homeless man and two successive Port of Spain mayors, which only came to an end last year after almost six years, also underlined the complex legal issues involved when it comes to the way authorities and stakeholders act.
We agree with the minister’s position that something must be done, not only for the sake of vulnerable people who end up residing in the streets but also the public. Health issues of all kinds arise. And regular reports of assaults involving the homeless as both victims and perpetrators are concerning.
As the legislative review continues, officials would do well to be mindful of the need for even wider collaboration with entities such as the Ministry of Health and the police, as well as NGOs such as St Vincent de Paul and Anthony Salloum, founder of the NGO Homeless Assistance Office. While stakeholders sometimes have found difficulty finding common ground, the issue is important enough for greater levels of sensitivity, co-ordination and co-operation.
Meanwhile, it is a cause for concern that there have been many delays when it comes to the efforts on the part of the State to get new systems and facilities off the ground. A new, permanent shelter for the homeless was announced in 2021, with the Riverside Plaza, originally meant to be a car park, benefitting from a degree of upgrade in 2019.
The minister hopes to see legislation in Parliament by next year, but such provisions will have to be subject to the usual legislative processes which can vary in their duration. Thereafter, any new law will usually have to be proclaimed, but only after enough supporting mechanisms are in place.
Time is of the essence. The problem of street dwelling does not seem to be getting substantially better. There are indications, for instance, that Port of Spain is now being rivalled by other urban centres in this regard, with more homeless people reported in San Fernando and Marabella since the pandemic. The ministry must expedite its review.