An unsettled 2016 court matter between the Port of Spain Corporation and a homeless man now stands in the way of the reopening of a temporary homeless shelter.
Minister of Social Development and Family Services Donna Cox, who was unaware of the dispute, told Newsday she must intervene.
Cox handed over the keys for the gated shelter on the ground floor of the Centre for Socially Displaced Persons at the Riverside Plaza carpark to Port of Spain mayor Joel Martinez a week ago, after being told of concerns about the homeless roaming the streets on the first three nights of the curfew.
The mayor was expected to pass the key to Anthony Salloum, founder of the NGO Homeless Assistance Office. But a week later, the space remains closed.
Martinez told Newsday on Thursday he will only hand over the keys if Salloum drops the court appeal against the corporation that he is involved in.
Only then, he said, "I will make a decision on the relinquishing of the keys towards the process.”
Asked how soon this would be, Martinez said he believes it would be soon.
“I know the plight and I know the responsibility, but I need direction also, because it's a court matter. And again, the Port of Spain corporation and the mayor does not have authorisation to really deal with the homeless, under the current laws.
"So whatever I'm doing, it's going to be done on our humanitarian basis.”
Hugh Bernard, a socially displaced man, went to court, with Salloum as a witness, after former mayor Raymond Tim Kee and members of the corporation decide to install padlocks on the gates around Tamarind Square, on east Independence Square, to keep out the homeless.
During cross-examination, the mayor and corporation claimed the presence of homeless people made the square unsanitary and impassable to the public. But the corporation denied deciding to lock all the gates to the square.
Bernard claimed there was no civilised alternative to the square, and conditions at the centre were inhumane and unsafe.
The judgement, delivered by Justice Eleanor J Donaldson-Honeywell in October 2017, dismissed Bernard’s claim that his right to “life, liberty, security of the person and enjoyment of property and the right not to be deprived thereof, except by due process of law,” and to freedom of movement were infringed by the corporation.
Bernard subsequently appealed.
But instead of going through with the appeal, the court suggested mediation between the parties. They are expected to return to court on July 4.
While the mayor remains optimistic the issue would soon be resolved, Salloum told Newsday on Thursday he is not, “if the mayor wants to dangle the keys to the shelter over my head."
An annoyed Salloum condemned the mayor for linking the shelter to the ongoing court matter. “So saying if we drop the case he will give it to us, that’s not a big deal. I don’t need to drop the case to get it. If he doesn’t give it to me, fine.
“The appeal has nothing to do with handing over the keys. That appeal is linked to the matter in Tamarind Square…I want to set up the assistance officer to help the homeless, one by one, to get them out of the situations they are in.”
He said the appeal will be dropped only if the corporation agrees to the terms and conditions of the settlement. This includes establishing a homeless assistance centre by 2022 and providing suitable facilities for the socially displaced.
He told Newsday the ministry agreed to allow him to use the facility to continue his 19 years of relief work for the homeless. So with or without the keys to the shelter, he will continue the volunteer work, operating out of cars if necessary, to help the destitute.
“The reason I asked for the ground floor is that it is the centre of where the homeless is. It’s the hell-hole.”
If the keys are handed over, Salloum plans to convert the space into an office to support and facilitate the registration of the homeless in Port of Spain and the environs.
This situation may be resolved before the beginning of next week, when the minister plans to intervene.
Cox said the reason the keys were given to the mayor was solely to create more space for the homeless looking for a place to go during the curfew hours.
“We gave the key to the mayor to use as he sees fit, and he decided he will work along with Salloum to meet whatever needs of the homeless, that's what I know…If there is a need for intervention, I will. I will have a discussion with both parties.”
Until then, she said, the ministry will continue to do all in its power to assist the homeless.
“We did this for them to know they have a place where they can go and get a meal or a place to stay.”