As well-intentioned as San Fernando Mayor Junia Regrello might be in his latest efforts to deal with an influx of street dwellers in the southern city, he needs to proceed with caution and ensure he works with and follows the advice of professionals in this matter.
The problem is a lot more complex than he imagines and there is no quick fix in solving an issue that has been chronic in urban areas across the country for decades. It is not as simple as mobilising to get these people off the street. If anything, that is just one aspect of the situation.
What is needed is a multi-faceted approach, aimed at a lot more than clearing city streets of individuals who are regarded as an eyesore and a nuisance.
Every effort aimed at T&T's very sizeable population of street dwellers should be developed on the clear understanding that these are human beings, citizens of this country existing at their lowest ebb. There cannot be a cookie-cutter approach in rendering assistance because the problems that have resulted in them sleeping on pavements and open spaces are many.
Some of them might be mentally ill, others are in the throes of substance abuse. In some instances, people have been driven out unto the streets by family problems or poverty.
Therefore, any solutions that involve simply carting them off to the St Ann’s Hospital, or overcrowded and undermanned facility for the socially displaced will be no more effective than “spinning top in mud.”
Mayor Regrello must be careful not to repeat the mistakes of past mayors who have taken up the issue with zeal, only to have those programmes fizzle out in a matter of weeks.
Louis Lee Sing, during his tenure in Port-of-Spain, famously mobilised resources to conduct some late-night exercises of rounding up vagrants. Although there were some fleeting successes, the situation in the nation’s capital was back to square one in no time at all.
However, if there are any lessons to be learned from these past attempts it is that the problem is well beyond the capacity of city authorities. While the various municipalities have their parts to play, this is a situation that demands a larger state effort.
While she is still new to the portfolio, Social Development Minister Camille Robinson-Regis should make street dwellers a priority project. However, she will need support from other ministries and agencies, such as the T&T Police Service (TTPS), Health Ministry and, of course, the various municipal bodies.
A range of support services will have to be available to house, treat and rehabilitate. This will have to be a long-term effort considering how deeply entrenched the problem has become over the years.
Street dwelling isn’t a San Fernando problem or a Port-of-Spain problem. It is a national problem and that is how it should be tackled—at the national level