By Elesha George
In the coming months, a few less vagrants may be seen roaming the streets. That is because the Ministry of Social Transformation plans to operationalise legislation that will examine the situation of vagrancy and homelessness in Antigua and Barbuda.
A Public Trustee has already been appointed to work with the Family Services Unit and the recently enacted Social Protection Board, which is expected to manage social protection programmes under the charge of the Ministry of Social Services.
The Minister for Social Transformation and the Blue Economy, Dean Jonas said Jose Laurent, a lawyer within the Ministry of Legal Affairs, has already been appointed to serve in the role as authorised by the 1995 Public Trustee Act which he described as “a gamechanger” for Antigua and Barbuda.
Although the act has been “on the books” for well over two decades, the minister shared plans of implementing the legislation within the next month. The expectation is that it will help to solve problems such as vagrancy, delinquency of children, the elderly and disabled people.
“It allows a person appointed by the court or by the Public Trustee to be custodian of these individuals if they have an income and if they have property because the problems that they face could be solved very quickly,” Jonas explained.
He believes its lack of implementation is one of the reasons why there exists such high instances of abandonment of people who have been institutionalized, a continuous increase in vagrancy as well as delinquency of children and people who are differently abled.
According to the minister, less than 80 people around the country have been identified as living on the streets, although he noted that a person can be a vagrant without being homeless. He however stated that majority of these people are not homeless and in fact have families and, in some cases, receive an income.
“In Antigua, our preliminary studies have shown that the vast majority are vagrants because of substance abuse, mainly alcohol and also because of mental health problems. What we have also discovered is that quite a few of these persons do own property”, he recalled.
Jonas is confident that if the people who own property were taken off the streets, the number of vagrants around the country would be significantly lower.
Meanwhile, he has spoken of plans to launch a special unit within social and family services dedicated to addressing vagrancy, noting too that counselling services are currently available for these people.
President of the Antigua and Barbuda Red Cross, Elvis Murray-Watkins added that the organisation has also interviewed a number of vagrants in St John’s who have confirmed that they own property but surmised that lack of access to support has attracted them to the city.
“Even with family members on island, they do indicate that being in the city, they stand a better chance of getting some assistance,” he recalled.
The Red Cross has been continuously involved in feeding programmes for the homeless. They also provide mental health services to those who need it.
Dr Jose Humphreys, is a Medical Advisor to Antigua and Barbuda Red Cross and shared that a major concern he noticed while assisting people on the streets, is substance abuse and the use of substances as well as alcoholism.
“These things are readily available on the street and so you find that people gravitate to being on the street based on accessibility to these illicit substances,” he noted.
According to the doctor, another factor that impacts the country’s level of homelessness are the lack of means to meet basic necessity and lack of education.
Meanwhile, President of the Barbados Alliance to End Homelessness, Kemar Saffrey spoke of the organisation’s high rehabilitation success rate in Barbados.
One of the key methods that the group uses is categorising clients based on their misgivings and creating a tailor-made programme around vagrancy and homelessness. The programme itself is funded by public and private sector partners.
“Our government now is giving us a subvention because we’re doing a national duty and the workload has gotten a little heavier but we are fully funded by the general public [and] The Maria Holder Memorial Trust,” Saffrey announced as he volunteered to assist the government of Antigua and Barbuda with aligning with the charity for monetary assistance and other resources to help vagrants.