DONNA COX, Minister of Social Development, said new legislation will allow street dwellers to be moved off the streets.
She was speaking at the sod-turning for a new homeless centre at South Quay, Port of Spain, on Wednesday.
The five-storey building will house 200 homeless people and will cost $50 million, she said.
“The Ministry of Social Development does not have the legislative authority to remove persons from the streets.
“As a result the Socially Displaced Persons Act (2000) is currently being reviewed to provide us with the authority to do so.”
Cox later told reporters how the law now stands.
“We have to ask them if they want to be removed. We cannot just move them.
“Some of them, there are mental health issues, some of them it is drug-abuse issues, so they will say no. We want to be able to help them.
“It’s really about assessing them and placing them.”
She said some street dwellers are elderly, some are ill.
“We want to ensure they go into the right areas.”
Asked about a time line for new homeless legislation, she said her ministry was working on a suite of laws, including some on pensions and disabled, that she hoped to be in Parliament in 2024.
“We have sent our legislation to get comments from persons to get input because there are those who are really interested and we want to get comments from them.”
Cox said the ministry was ensuring its policy and the new legislation were matching.
Newsday asked about any human-rights concerns over legislation to move street dwellers off the street.
“We understand there are human-rights issues to be dealt with. That’s why we have to do what we are doing legally. That’s part of the reason why we have to look at the legislation.”
She said it all needed a collaborative approach, between her ministry and the likes of the Ministry of Health.
Newsday asked what could be done immediately about dangerous street dwellers who assault passers-by.
Cox replied, “The police intervention is important.”
However, she said, at present, even if such individuals are taken to hospitals or mental institutions, they would be let out the next day.
“That’s why the legal aspect is so important, so you could keep them.”
Cox said even a street dweller who was mentally ill and had attacked someone could not be prevented from leaving a mental institution under current laws.
“Nobody can stop you. And they are aware of that. That is not comforting to the police either, after going through all of that.”
Cox in her address listed the attempts since 1978 to address the socially displaced, including seven task forces/Cabinet-appointed committees, eight studies/reports and six strategic/action plans.
“The question of homelessness has not been neglected, but execution appears to have been a challenge.”
She said the centre would offer its residents a new beginning in life, providing meals and clothes plus psychosocial and spiritual counselling.
“Levels two, three and four will house male and female dormitories, including TV rooms/gathering spaces.”
Residents will have not just a bed and a roof over their heads but a chance to rebuild their lives with dignity, self-worth and a sense of purpose, Cox said.
“It symbolises our unwavering resolve to uplift lives and offers a second chance to those who need it most.”
Port of Spain South MP Keith Scotland said the centre represented “a significant investment and shows we are our brother's keeper.”
Minister of National Security Fitzgerald Hinds said while many people think it is easy to pick up homeless individuals, the constitutional realities were more complex.
“We found ourselves in a state of stasis.”
Hinds vowed, “We’ll reach out to persons on the streets and encourage them to come in.”
What the law says:
On the act which Cox wants amended, the Parliament website said the Socially Displaced Persons Act was assented to in 2000, but otherwise it is not listed on the Ministry of the Attorney General's website as being a law in force.
This act (section 15) says if a socially displaced person is unwilling to enter an assessment centre, a field officer shall do a written report on the case and give it to the ministry's Socially Displaced Unit, which in turn may apply for a court order to admit the person.
The act (section 18) says if the court makes an order, "the unit shall arrange for a field officer to remove the socially displaced person named in the order in a humane manner, and in such a way that his dignity is preserved." The field officer must be accompanied by a police officer and the person's closest relative must be notified.
Otherwise, the Constitution (section 4) spells out citizens' human rights, including the right a "private and family life...freedom of movement...freedom of thought and expression," and "freedom of association and assembly."
Yet the Summary Offences Act (section 45) says an "idle and disorderly person" is liable to a $200 fine, or a month's imprisonment.
This includes "any person wandering abroad or placing himself in any street to beg or gather alms" and "any person found sleeping or loitering in or under any building, including any open outhouse, verandah, gallery, passage, or gateway, or in any vehicle or vessel, without leave of the owner, occupier or person in charge thereof, or on or under any wharf, quay, jetty, bridge, foot way, or in any street or other public place, and not giving a good account of himself."
Further, the Mental Health Act (section 13) says that upon a court order, a psychiatric hospital director may admit someone to the hospital for up to 14 days for examination to determine if he is mentally ill and in need of care and treatment. Within 14 days of admission the director must notify the court.
The court may rescind its order or make another order to admit the person to a hospital for "such further care and treatment" as the director considers necessary.
The act (section 10) deals with the admission of medically-recommended persons to mental hospitals. The director may "on an application made by a relative or friend and accompanied by two certificates of two medical practitioners, one of whom shall be a government medical officer, admit to a hospital or a psychiatric ward as a medically recommended patient, any person named in the certificates, if he is of the opinion that the person named therein is unable or unwilling to express himself as being in need of care and treatment."