By Leela Ramdeen, Chair, CCSJ, & Director, CREDI,Visit rcsocialjusticett.org for our columns, media releases and more.
We should heed Pope Francis’ warning in his homily at a Mass at the Vatican for about 6,000 poor, homeless and displaced people from a dozen European countries and Africa (November 2016):
“We should be worried when our consciences are anaesthetized and we no longer see the brother or sister suffering at our side, or notice the grave problems in our world, which become a mere refrain familiar from the headlines on the evening news.”
He said that the world’s needy should be seen as “concrete people, not useless objects but precious persons”. He has said that there is no social or moral justification for homelessness. He urges us to reject today’s throwaway culture and the globalisation of indifference.
Here in T&T there seems to be an increase in the number of homeless/socially displaced persons. A few years ago, a study was conducted to determine the various kinds of homeless people who live in T&T. We have the data but we have not developed the will-power to build right relationships with our homeless brothers and sisters who are either mentally ill, indigent, alcoholics, drug addicts, have ended up on the street due to family disputes and so on.
In the 2016 case involving Hugh Bernard, who was homeless, Justice Eleanor Donaldson-Honeywell acknowledged that street dwelling is a concern in T&T. As part of her judgement, she “called upon the Government and citizens to partner with each other to address the issue of homelessness”.
She said: “The reasons for the plight of the persons reduced to living in such circumstances are many and varied. However, what is certain is that in a society as small as ours these persons are connected perhaps by less than six degrees of separation from each of us. Accordingly, this issue of street dwelling is a matter that requires urgent attention and it is a concern from which no member of society can feel absolved of responsibility.”
The then Mayor of Port of Spain (POS), Keron Valentine, said there were over 300 homeless people in POS but dealing with that issue was not part of the corporation’s core function. He said: “We kept on calling for them to be placed in rehabilitation centres and that is not our core function. We kept on calling other state agencies and social services to take care of it…”
The Trinidad & Tobago Guardian had reported that Justice Donaldson-Honeywell “also ruled she could not consider Bernard’s claims of unsanitary and inhumane conditions at the Centre for the Socially Displaced at Riverside carpark (located opposite Tamarind Square), as the corporation is not responsible for homeless shelters.”
Street dwelling is not confined to POS alone. And let us not forget that those on our streets must have families somewhere. CCSJ calls upon families whose members may be homeless, to reach out and assist them; don’t turn your backs on them.
And we also ask families who have abandoned their older relatives in hospitals or in senior citizens’ homes to have a heart and embrace them within the folds of your family.
Reflect on the words of Rajiv Gopie, a winner of the President’s medal, who said in an article on June 28, 2012, entitled: ‘Tackling homelessness in T&T’: “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 T&T 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…A new paradigm is needed, one where the fate and plight of the homeless is seen as a national issue, and everyone’s responsibility.”
Let us get out of our comfort zones, open our hearts and act as advocates for the homeless and the poor. And remember to pray. As Pope Francis says: “In prayer, there is no first or second class, there is brotherhood. It is in prayer that our hearts find the strength not to be cold and insensitive in the face of injustice.”