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Gov’t responds to the street-dweller problem

A young street dweller. Photo: Gerard-Paul Wanliss

by Lara Pickford-Gordon, lpgordon.camsel@rcpos.org

How many times have we seen street dwellers and wondered why the authorities do not round them up and take them to a facility? Over the years many attempts were made to get street dwellers to voluntarily leave the streets. Executive Director of the Social Displacement Unit (SDU), Ministry of Social Development and Family Services Loraine Reyes-Borel said “street sweeps” in which “a whole batch of people” were picked up do not work: “You are bringing 20–30 people in a state of disarray before the court; it traumatises the court.”

Interviewed last month at the ministry’s head office, St Vincent Street, Reyes-Borel said one of the concerns of the police is that when persons are arrested, they returned to the streets.

“They prefer not to clog the courts with the street dweller cases. They just leave it unaddressed which accounts for the fact our clients will lie down wherever.” In contrast, she said a few individuals held by police weekly in the course of their duties can be more manageable for the court. Most likely the street dwellers require treatment at St Ann’s Hospital or substance-abuse rehabilitation. “We do have alternatives to sentencing.”

Reyes-Borel said the SDU “once upon a time” offered hygiene services. “We had an ambulance, a vehicle with ‘Ambulance’ written on the outside. It had three compartments. The last part had the client, middle for staff and the driver. The client would be picked up and a shower and change of clothing offered,” she said.

The encounter was an opportunity to persuade the street dweller to enter a rehabilitation programme. Reyes-Borel said, “We are building a relationship… so today you might not want to go to the shelter but as we become friends, you might say ‘yes alright’.” It may take months to convince them to be rehabilitated. After a shower and change of clothes, Reyes-Borel said the individual can choose to spend their time sitting on a bench at the Brian Lara Promenade and nobody would know they were homeless.

The involvement of the police and court system can serve as a “push” for persons to access the services of the ministry. Referring to a series of bombings which occurred in Port of Spain in 2005 starting July 11, Reyes-Borel noted the police enforced the no loitering law because of the security risk.

“Our clients could not sit down in front of anybody’s place. That is what’s done in Canada in particular; it is done in the United States, ‘you need to move from here sir’. It is done respectfully, and it supports. What that also does is make the social services more attractive.”

Four pillars of Care

Last August, a Coordinating and Monitoring Committee for Street Dwelling was appointed with representatives from the Ministries of Social Development and Family Services, Health, Attorney General and Legal Affairs, local government, TT Police Service, Downtown Owners and Merchants Association.  The Committee is charged with establishing a continuum of care for street dwellers, and rehabilitation and reintegration.

The establishment of the Working Committee represents “a renewed commitment” by stakeholders to ensure a properly coordinated approach, Minister of Social Development and Family Services Cherrie-Ann Crichlow-Cockburn told the Catholic News.

Responding to questions via email she said the “Continuum of Care model has been the more commonly adopted approach over the years to treat with the issue of street dwelling. It seeks to respond to the four basic areas of need: treatment, rehabilitation, employment and housing.”

This is done through the following four pillars:
Engagement—reaching out to street dwellers and informing of rehabilitation services and support programme available as well as facilitating their access to these services;
Temporary Care—provision of shelter, stabilisation, assessment, counselling and development of a care plan for the client;
Primary Care—specialised treatment and rehabilitation;
Advanced Care—supported long-term/permanent care or assistance to access permanent long-term independent living accommodation.

The minister said, “Currently, we are able to provide aspects of the first three levels on a limited basis. The intention is to fully implement the four pillars upon establishment of the permanent centre.”

Minister Crichlow-Cockburn has publicly spoken of the Ministry’s plans to establish the centre which is expected to be sited at the corner of Piccadilly Street and South Quay and take two to three years to be completed.

In the interim, Crichlow-Cockburn said, the old Besson Street police station, PoS is being considered for a temporary assessment centre and shelter. Screening will be given by medical personnel.  Some accommodation will be provided for street dwellers who need extended monitoring.

Care plans will also be developed for clients. Crichlow-Cockburn said there is no assessment centre for street dwellers and this has limited the type of assistance which can be given.

She said the Socially Displaced Persons Act 2000 in its present form “may not be amenable to being implemented in a manner that is respectful of the human rights and dignity of street dwellers.” It also does not permit the SDU established by the Act to act swiftly or independently to introduce street dwellers to the rehabilitation system.

Crichlow-Cockburn said amendments were necessary to clarify and enhance: definitions contained in the Act, the functions of the SDU, the staffing of the Unit, involuntary removal, rehabilitation through admission to assessment and care centres, discharge from the rehabilitation system.

“This system will be characterised by the collaboration and coordination of the activities of public and private agencies (State and NGOs) which will be integral to the effective removal, rehabilitation, and reintegration of street dwellers in addition to providing a preventative mechanism to those at risk of imminent street dwelling,” Crichlow-Cockburn said.