In the general scheme of things, with glaring challenges on virtually every front in Barbados – the national shutdown in protest of the non-settlement of wage negotiations, the sewage crisis on the south coast and, of course, the looming general elections – some critical issues will not get the attention they rightly deserve.
The issue of homelessness falls into this category.
It is not sexy and the question is often asked who’s at fault.
For most of us, the homeless are little more than eyesores as we pass them huddled on the pavement wrapped in rags, or humbugs as they outstretch their hands with a request for a dollar.
Whether or not we want to admit it, what happens to Ninja Man and scores of others living on the streets of The City will hardly get a passing thought.
Instead, many will say the homeless need to find work and not expect handouts.
However, the issue of homelessness should not be dismissed or taken lightly and this is perhaps the message the founder and president of the Barbados Vagrants and Homeless Society (BVHS) Kemar Saffrey was trying to send when he made the bold decision to release a manifesto urging the political parties contesting this year’s general election to make a commitment to stamp out homelessness.
In the two-page document entitled Homeless Does Not Mean Voteless, Saffrey argues that those bidding to serve the people for the next five years cannot ignore this growing group.
He makes his case against the backdrop of concerns that “homelessness and sleeping on the streets have scaled to a national level”, and that on any given night, over 100 vagrants can be found making bed in The City.
The young activist is therefore urging all the parties vowing to make life better for Barbadians to include vagrants by allocating a building, which can be used as a 24/7 shelter, along with annual funding for the BVHS and to provide housing solutions for vagrants.
And why shouldn’t they?
Governments past and present have seemingly dropped the ball when it comes to this social problem, despite our relatively strong welfare system.
The inaction is perhaps most glaring whenever a storm threatens. It is normal to see the homeless on the streets trying to get any cover they can when most are battened down in warm beds.
It is unacceptable that a country as developed as ours can turn a blind eye to this.
Agencies such as the BVHS, the Salvation Army, churches and other humanitarian groups should not be left to tackle this issue alone.
Any incoming Government therefore should demonstrate that it is caring enough to provide the means to assist those groups who cannot help themselves.
Isn’t a Government judged by how it treats the most vulnerable members of society?
Of course, there are those who argue that all the blame should be laid on the shoulders of the victims, but our failure to tackle the problem has long been hindered by stereotypes. Not all homeless people are drug addicts or prostitutes. In most cases, the issue is far more complex.
Homelessness should not be viewed as punishment or a disease.A person may end up on the street for any number of reasons. Some come from broken homes, others are victims of misfortune, illness, lack of employment, drug or alcohol addiction.
Regardless of what has forced them to resort to living on the streets, those elected to public service, and indeed the wider society, should empathize with them.
Efforts to remove victims from the streets by putting them in a shelter are not enough.
Rather, as recommended by the BVHS, authorities must be able to implement holistic programmes at the shelters and work with those organizations to give them a second chance.
As a country we need a new mindset. Homelessness must be addressed from the political level all the way down to the ordinary Barbadian.
We doubt that the issue make it on the political platform as a hot button topic, but there is no reason why the incoming Government should not treat homelessness as a national issue and encourage Barbadians to take seriously their responsibility for stamping out the problem that affects all of us.