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Tackling homelessness in T&T

By Rajiv Gopie

Homelessness has been a topic featured prominently in the mainstream media for the past few months. There have been the views from the usual talking heads and the retribution bandwagon placing all blame for homelessness squarely on the shoulders of the victims.

There have been precious few voices advocating for revolutionary changes to how we deal with homelessness. It is too easy to pass the blame about this social ill because as a society we do not want to look in the mirror and confront the larger structural, economic, social and cultural issues that fuel homelessness.

This problem is not going away and unless we realise that we need to rethink our entire approach we will not be able to rectify this terrible injustice.

Homeless people are not nameless or faceless. They are not sub-human or inhuman. They are human beings and citizens of Trinidad and Tobago just like the rest of us.

Homeless people are someone's children, maybe even husbands or wives. These are people, and represent some of the most vulnerable in our society.

As a nation we are failing to deal and understand the plight of the homeless and the displaced. Homelessness is not a punishment or a disease. It is not vengeance being meted out for evil or laziness.

Not all homeless people are drug addicts or prostitutes. These stereotypes are limiting and are just convenient as we can neatly place blame on the homeless themselves. Homelessness can arise from a number of factors, many of which are out of the control of the victims.

Mental illness which is a taboo in our culture is one of the leading causes of homelessness. Families are unable to deal with mental illness and the few State facilities that exist to deal with mental illness are in a dilapidated state, using outdated practices and methods and are unable to cope with the demand for their services.

With no services and no means of dealing with mentally disturbed relatives, many families end up being unable to cope and their loved ones end up on the streets.

It is unacceptable that in a country so rich and supposedly advancing on the path of modernity that we are refusing to have an open and frank discussion about mental illness.

Seeing mental disturbance as a curse or punishment, witchcraft, obeah, or the work of the devil is plain mindboggling.

Furthermore, being ashamed to seek help for loved ones out of a fear of loss of reputation, status or shame is unacceptable.

The State should upgrade its current mental facilities and open new ones, but none of these advances will mean anything if people refuse to break their cultural resistance to dealing with mental illness and all of its ramifications.

Apart from mental illness. homelessness is often linked to abuse of substances including drugs and alcohol. Once again there is a big taboo surrounding addiction of any type.

Apart from drug abuse, the abuse of alcohol is endemic and almost pandemic in our country yet there is little being done to tackle this problem. As a matter of fact, most people do not even recognise they are alcoholics. Without proper help to deal with any addiction and factoring in family pride and honour, many end up on the streets.

Apart from the usual causes of homelessness, there are also uncomfortable truths that we as a society must confront. Many homeless people are youths, people who have been neglected by their families, who have run away from abuse, who have been ostracised for whatever reasons and in some cases who are just rebellious.

No matter what the reason, there should be no street children in Trinidad and Tobago. It is unacceptable and brings shame on every single one of us.

Cuba, despite its relative poverty and problems, can boast of having no homeless children. If they can do it with their limited resources so can we. There are millions allocated to children and social services and more ministers and ministries than anyone can remember, yet we still have street children. Why? What is happening to all this money and why are we allowing this situation to continue?

The other inconvenient truth is despite what we are being told about our economy and the rates of unemployment there are thousands of people in our country who do not have a home and whose wages are not enough to even rent a room.

Not everyone has the luxury of parents with property to give them a plot of land or help. There are many young ambitious people with jobs who are just getting by and cannot get on the property ladder.

Many will remark that they need to work harder and not expect handouts. This is true only to a certain extent.

The world is much different now from what it was even a decade ago and rising rent and building costs are pushing dreams of home ownership further away from the grasps of many. Some people are being forced to sleep rough or with friends and distant relatives as they just cannot afford a home.

I have only touched on the tip of the iceberg surrounding the issue of homelessness.

Unlike most commentators I do not think this crisis can be solved by the Government though they do have a big role to play. Homelessness must be addressed from an individual level all the way up to the circles of power. Cultural and social attitudes concerning the perception of the homeless and their rights need to shift.

There is no quick-fix solution, instead we need a radical overhaul of the entire system.

Incremental changes have not worked and after decades of efforts the problem of homelessness is exacerbating. A new paradigm is needed, one where the fate and plight of the homeless is seen as a national issue, and everyone's responsibility.

Rajiv Gopie won the President's Medal in 2006 for business/modern studies. He is an MSc candidate

in International Relations at the

London School of Economics.

rajivgopie@hotmail.com

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