The headlines tended to mislead: “Street dwellers to be removed” implied that the measure, tried and failed for years, was to round-up street dwellers and cart them off to St Ann’s for virtual incarceration.
The problem of vagrancy has been a blot on our society for far too long. The “solution” as articulated by successive administrations has been to round them up and hide them away. But this solution has never been implemented. It had been tried, using methods almost akin to dog catchers trying to round-up stray dogs. And the results were no different; the street dwellers melted away while the authorities searched for them, and when the authorities disappeared, the street dwellers returned.
There is no doubt that these people should not be living on our streets, sleeping on our pavements, begging for, or searching through garbage bins for their food, and urinating and defecating on sidewalks. They create a health hazard, some are mentally unstable, and they are an ongoing nuisance and eyesore. However, these are human beings, the children and siblings of others who live normal lives. Most are not criminals, and not all are drug addicts or alcoholics, and they are intelligent enough to “escape” the nets which seek to capture and lock them away. Can they therefore be “saved” and returned to society, and even to living productive lives?
These questions have been answered in deed more than in word by a Government minister whose portfolio, when announced in 2010, was ridiculed by many. People questioned the mandate of the Ministry of the People and Social Development, and some mocked the man assigned this portfolio, Dr Glen Ramadharsingh. In his early visible activities he was seen as the Minister who handed out hampers and relief packages to persons distressed by flooding, landslips, whose homes had been damaged or destroyed by fire or other hazards. And while these events also provided “photo-ops” for the new Government, there can be no disputing that the recipients appeared very relieved to have received them.
But while the opportunities for visibility were obviously exploited by the Government, as all governments feel entitled to do, the Ministry of the People has quietly been developing broader strategies for improving the lot of the less advantaged and the fallen among us. And the “removal of vagrants” from the streets, in a sensitive and sympathetic manner, is probably their crowning achievement to date. And it is still a work in progress, continuing the rehabilitation of those whom many of us, and many previous governments, had given up upon.
Earlier this year we addressed the successful rehabilitation of about a dozen street dwellers under Dr Ramadharsingh’s initiative. And this past week, the week of Christmas, a further 20 persons have been “taken off the streets”. But in essence, these people walked off the streets and back into meaningful lives. Yes, they would have been sought out by the counsellors of the Inter-Agency Unit which was established to lead these people back into society, but essentially they were encouraged to find their way, rather than accepting their condition or the “charity” of those who felt that feeding these street dwellers was an acceptable option.
Speaking at a Breakfast for the Homeless on Christmas morning, Dr Ramadharsingh said that some 175 persons had so far opted to leave the streets and return to society. Many were living with their families again, and some were back at work, earning their living.
In a very real sense, the Ministry mocked at its inception is creating the most humane successes of the past year.