By deciding to deal with the vagrant problem in Trinidad and Tobago, the Manning administration has set a measure by which its governmental competence can be clearly judged. Social Development Minister Anthony Roberts has been very reassuring in his public explanations of the Government's vagrancy programme. According to Mr Roberts, there is a clear plan, which includes a centre to house the vagrants who have been removed from the streets. This main centre, which is a building that belonged to executed drug baron Dole Chadee, is located in Piparo - well away from the cities and towns where these socially displaced persons usually congregate.
However, according to a report in yesterday's Sunday Newsday, the personnel who have to deal directly with these vagrants are already encountering difficulties. One nurse at the St Ann's Mental Hospital said, “Yet again the authorities are not stressing on quality. The place is already crowded. They did not say make sure beds are available. We don't know what is the long-term plan. No one spoke to us.” The ability of the St Ann's hospital to deal with the homeless persons is especially important. This is because many of them - as much as half - are likely to be suffering some sort of mental illness. The most common type of such illness will probably be schizophrenia, which may be inherent or may have been brought on by cocaine abuse.
Whatever the case, this is obviously a disease which requires specialised care and medication. But the authorities at the St Ann's hospital have been pleading for years now for an expansion of their facilities - more personnel and, particularly, more ward space. While some work has begun, this new initiative by the Government could result in a serious disruption. But even that could be mitigated if the personnel at the hospital are told clearly what the Government's plan is - which, apparently, has not happened. That lack of information and planning was also evident when the vagrants were brought to court to be charged with, among other things, the offence of loitering. No provisions were made for them to be bathed, and the police officers and the court's personnel were not prepared for this encounter.
Now it may be that these are all small difficulties which will be ironed away as the programme gets underway. But various concerned groups and citizens have already begun raising issues about the kind of approach the Government has adopted. The Catholic Commission for Social Justice, which is headed by attorney Leela Ramdeen, has suggested that the Government carry out this exercise in a more phased fashion, removing only five to ten vagrants per week so as to deal more efficiently with each case in terms of accommodation and treatment for both physical and psychological health. For this Ms Ramdeen has been the target of considerable vituperation from a certain segment of the public, based not on the CCSJ's actual suggestion, but on the idea that the Roman Catholic Church is speaking from a glass cathedral.
However, while churches and other organisations have a role to play, it is ultimately the responsibility of the State to help those citizens who have fallen through the cracks. But if it is that, within a few months, there is still a high number of vagrants on the nation's streets, or reports of these persons' rights being trampled on, then the Manning administration will have some hard questions to answer.
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