The age-old issue of street dwelling
Earlier this year, the Director of Statistics at the Central Statistical Office (CSO) disclosed that a preliminary count showed that the street dweller population grew by 13.4 per cent over the decade 2000-2011.
The largest concentration is in Port of Spain numbering some 307 and predominantly male.
Whatever is the actual figure, problems remain the same. In this 50th year of Independence, the continual omission, failure and/or neglect to address these, brings health issues, security concerns and has an overall negative impact on the national tourism thrust, as we seek to diversify the economy away from sole reliance on energy.
The Chamber remains of the view that no new legislation is required for dealing with the unlawful occupation and activities on our streets, as this is the description of the conduct of those who do so. The Summary Offences Act already recognises this, as crime enforcement is yet another concern of the Chamber.
For example, sections 4 and 5, thereof make assault, battery and aggravated assaults, criminal offences. Section 45 (c) deals with sleeping or loitering in public places; section 46 (a) with persons wilfully and obscenely exposing their persons; Section 49, with violent obscene language or disturbance of the peace. Sections 65 and 67 deal with offences in streets and public places to the annoyance or danger of residents or passengers and section 69, the throwing of stones or missiles. While this body of law may consider the reasons for street dwelling, it certainly deals with consequences. All that may be necessary is amendment of the penalties to bring them in line with the 21st Century, rather than 1921, when this Act first became law!
In addition, the Mental Health Act, which became law since 1975, allows a mental health officer who has reason to believe that a person found wandering at large on a highway or in any public place who by reason of his conduct, appearance or conversation, is mentally ill and in need of care and treatment in a psychiatric ward or hospital, may be taken into custody and conveyed to such hospital, or ward for admission for observation, in accordance with section 15 thereof. Section 15 also provides for the police to render assistance to the mental health officer in the event he requires same to apprehend and convey the person to the ward or hospital.
History is replete with the names of victims of attacks by those, who, by the very nature of their behaviour, would overqualify for apprehension under section 15. The Chamber is aware of only a very few, like Cheryl Ann Alexander and Michelle Brewster, who appeared at a press conference last year with Port of Spain Mayor Louis Lee Sing, to exemplify the types of injury street dwellers inflict. Let us not forget also Sharifa Walker, who is 95 per cent blind in her left eye as a result of such an attack.
Whether we enforce the old Act or enact a new one, enforcement of the law will continue to be a challenge. So too will be the provision of alternative accommodation for those making our streets their homes, until they can be sufficiently rehabilitated to return to regular society and a life of caring for themselves. Minister of Health Dr Fuad Khan, noted previously that 60 per cent of patients warded at the St Ann's Mental Hospital were just social cases and did not need to be there.
Since the enactment of the 1975 Mental Health Act, all successive administrations have taken their turn at tackling the issue of dealing with the socially displaced. Particularly in our capital city finding a short-term solution to this challenge is most pressing.
If Trinidad and Tobago is ever going to enjoy a developed society, Government must address the age-old issue of street dwelling. The CSO's census in 2011 also shows a wider dispersion of the problem to Tobago, and we do not need to spend even more money on any study to tell us the answers.