Saturday, February 17, 2018

Concerns over ‘beggar’ children at Siparia festival


HUGE NUMBERS: Visitors to the Soparee Mai or La Divina Pastora celebrations on the compound of the La Divina Pastora RC Church, Siparia, hand out alms on Good Friday. —Photo: TREVOR WATSON

Mark Fraser

THE streets of Siparia were filled last week with people who came to pray and praise God during the annual Easter Friday Soparee Mai celebration.

Some also came for the bargains from vendors lining the roads, and others for the barbers to cut their children’s hair, an Easter tradition. But within the walls of the La Divina Pastora Roman Catholic Church compound was a scene of desperation and despair that was known only to those who visited to worship at the foot of a sacred statue.

Upon entering and leaving the church, these worshippers were met by hundreds of ragged men, women, children and babies. Church officials said while they were concerned by the number of children coming to the church every year, no one would be turned away.

Some had been there for days, sleeping on cardboard beds or soiled sheets, waiting patiently with hands outstretched for pilgrims to share money and food. Surrounded by mounds of garbage and dirty clothing, towels and sheets which were hung around the walls of the school. The scent of urine mixed with the rotting food strewn the floors and walkways. The destitute had spent the majority of Holy Week, sleeping in the Siparia Boys’ RC schoolyard, claiming temporary squatter rights.

The church officials housed the group and allowed them to use the water and restrooms facilities within the school compound. However, many were shocked the number of begging children. Mothers with their infant children sat on bedspreads under the tents erected for the patrons, calling out to anyone, asking for help. It rained a lot that day, but it did not deter them.

In rags and drenched, one young girl no older than ten years ran after a pilgrim pleading for money. An older man got upset with a patron when she did not give him a dollar. Wary patrons tried to keep away from some who looked threatening in any way. The items the destitute collected were stored in garbage bags and cardboard boxes. Questions were asked as to why such a large number of citizens were forced to beg given the number of State social assistance programmes.

Minister of Gender and Youth Development Clifton De Coteau said that he is aware that a number of people were congregating to receive things from people in charity at such festivals. However, he was surprised when told about the number of children among the beggars.

De Coteau said his ministry has launched a community caravan to include training and educating parents with proper parenting guides and policies. De Coteau also said, “we need to guide and protect the children”.

Through the community caravan project, De Coteau said that Ministry officials will go to communities across Trinidad, along with officials from the ministry of Education and Ministry of National Security to find these children, in order to find solutions to the problems”.