Contrary to popular opinion, most homeless people in Trinidad and Tobago do not choose to be (come) homeless. In a study I conducted recently, I found that 40 percent of the homeless have nowhere to live, were thrown out of their home or their home was destroyed, 25 percent stated that their parents were deceased and there was no one to care for them, 21 percent had drug and alcohol problems and 14 percent were hospitalised, in prison and/or unemployed (Grant 2008).
Homelessness is therefore an accidental condition – one that is based on personal conditions and situations. As a matter of fact, the homeless population are victims of poverty, adult abuse, child abuse, mental institutions, prison, children’s homes and violence perpetrated against them.
The homeless person has been called many names like vagrant, hobo, street dweller, pavement dweller, transient, nowayrian, tramp, vagabond, drifter, derelict, beggar, nomad and many more but remember they are human beings like the rest of society.
They are just (have been) experiencing serious difficulties and are without the resources and timely, ongoing social services assistance and intervention that would normally aid in curing their ills. The majority of the homeless live on the streets where they eat, sleep, wash and conduct their daily activities.
The harsh reality of street life is manifested in the physical condition and appearance of the homeless population as they are shabbily dressed and dirty and appear sickly and ill.
However, the streets are safer to them than shelters, assessment centres and temporary housing facilities, which to them can be very dangerous and violent. The street is therefore their home – a home without a kitchen, bedroom, toilet, security and privacy.
The typical homeless person can be seen scavenging in garbage bins and bags and if lucky, eating or drinking discarded food and drinks, panhandling for money or food, sleeping, sitting or lying on the pavement, in Tamarind Square, Woodford Square, Victoria Square, Lord Harris Square, Duncan Street, Harris Promenade… on a park bench, in bus shelters or in empty, abandoned buildings.
They are often dressed in rags and dirty clothing carrying bags filled with their worldly possessions. Some of them talk to themselves and carry on long dialogues unperturbed by the presence of others. They live on the dangerous, violent streets.
They are exposed to all weather conditions, sun and rain. They eat old, stale, sour food and are more likely to be sick and to have many medical diseases like asthma, Parkinson’s disease, heart problems, pneumonia… They are also unclean as it is difficult for them to be clean when they do not have facilities and running water to bathe and to wash their clothing.
These people also looks older than they really are because of living on the unfriendly streets and the unpleasant condition existent there.
The homeless person is ostracised, humiliated, rejected, neglected, discriminated against and frowned upon because many in society feel that they are lazy, drug addicted, alcohol addicted, mentally ill or medically ill.
As a matter of fact, 58 percent have physical problems such as broken leg, fractured hand, hernia, physical disabilities… 16 percent have medical problems such as eye problems, diabetes, asthma, nervous breakdown, Parkinson disease, senility… but 26 percent have neither physical nor medical problems (Grant 2008).
The homeless population in Trinidad are not lazy because they perform odd jobs on a daily basis and assist street vendors, market vendors, entrepreneurs and businesses in their respective forms of employment. However, they are very dependent and rely on others to assist them with food, money and charity. They live the life of homelessness and do not deviate much from the expectations of the lifestyle.
Since 1940, many studies and recommendations have been made on resolving the vagrancy problem in Trinidad and Tobago yet vagrancy remains at an uncontrollable level and their numbers remain a mystery to those responsible for their care, safety and well being.
Homelessness in T & T is not static and the population changes every decade. In my study, 64 percent of the respondents were homeless for less than 10 years and 36 percent for over 10 years. However, 60 percent were homeless for less than 5 years.
The average length of time they lived on the streets was eight years with a range of six months to 40 years and a median of eight years (Grant 2008).
Therefore, to understand the pavement dwellers who legally roam the urban centres of the two-island republic, demographic statistics must be collected regularly (yearly) in order to understand the changing dynamics of this sub-culture.
Homelessness is being poor and without a home. Homelessness is being without financial resources in order to take care of oneself. Homelessness therefore is a condition of disengagement from social structures that one can turn to when difficult times are present.
When a homeless person is refused medical services from a hospital or clinic, or when a doctor or nurse refuses to see a homeless person because of his appearance and physical condition, then the social structure (medical profession) has failed him hence he has no other choice but to seek alternative medical assistance.
So it is not surprising that he has disengaged himself from such persons who do not provide him with the service he needs. However, this disengagement with society is reversed with other street dwellers as they protect each other and share food, drinks and drugs with each other. They also band together to stay out of danger and stick together for friendship and companionship.
They also look out for each other and there is a strong bonding among them – old and young, male and female. Thus, they are connected and engaged in their sub-culture, in their own society. They may lack housing and employment.
They may lack nourishing meals and drinks. They may lack many things but in their sub-culture, they have each other and that is what matters most to them.
Economic hardship, poverty and other social ills can occur at any time in one’s life and resources must be made available to citizens to ease their burdens and at the same time eliminate their plunge into homelessness and living on the streets.
Therefore, in order to stop the revolving door of homelessness, immediate government action, realistic intervention measures and programmes are needed to provide the homeless population with suitable housing, intensive treatment for mental and medical problems, intensive treatment for drugs and alcohol addiction, rehabilitation services, therapeutic services, social services, outreach services, crisis intervention, employment, employment training and opportunities, educational skills enhancement, family support and family reunification.
Much could be done to curb homelessness in T & T but the government has to be really interested in eradicating this social blight. The PNM government must somehow obtain a vision and formulate a plan to immediately institute effective measures to help the thousands of predominantly homeless men (86 percent) (Grant 2008) roaming the busy streets of Trinidad.
The daily suffering and sickness experienced by the many homeless men and women who wander aimlessly from place to place must be addressed by the government along with those homeless persons who are dying daily without any assistance or intervention from the Ministry of Social Development. In other words, the PNM government must take immediate action to resolve this burgeoning social problem.
The vast majority of the homeless have resided in the East West Corridor and San Fernando. Sixty-four percent have resided in the North and 24 percent in the South (Grant 2008).
It is then not surprising that 88 percent of the homeless population in my study lived in the urban centres because people work and commute to North and South Trinidad to work, seek employment, shop and for recreational and sporting activities.
Therefore, homelessness in T & T is an urban problem because the urban centres such as the capital city of Port of Spain and the second major centre of San Fernando are where the financial exchange takes place and consequently is the place to be if one is seeking assistance and charity. Hence, it is not surprising that the homeless converge in the major urban centres because to them, that is where the action is.
Excerpts of this paper are from –The Nowayrians: Homelessness in Trinidad and Tobago. Grant, LT (2008). Trinidad: Yacos Publications.