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Laws around homelessness too reactionary, judge says

Working group: Aaron Crichlow, left, cofounder of the community group Bermuda Is Love, Denise Carey, the executive director of Home, and Puisne Judge Juan Wolffe (Photograph by Jeremy Deacon)

Existing legislation needs to be amended to deal with homelessness in a more proactive way, according to a puisne judge.

Juan Wolffe is a member of a legal working group, established under the Plan to End Homelessness, looking at existing legislation and recommending new laws aimed at plugging gaps in the system.

It has been working for six months and aims to draft a Bill for consideration by the Attorney-General, possibly by 2025.

“One thing we discovered was that the current legislation that deals with tenant and landlord issues is inadequate to deal with homelessness in a proactive way,” Mr Justice Wolffe said.

“The Landlord Tenant Act and the Rent Increases (Domestic Premises) Control Act 1978 are more reactionary.

“They deal with the management of people who have been, or are about to be, kicked out. It doesn’t deal with actually preventing people becoming homeless.

“We thought, I think quite wisely, that we need to either amend the legislation to deal with homelessness in a very proactive way or have a stand-alone piece of legislation.

“Other jurisdictions have done that and there’s no reason why Bermuda can’t do the same thing.”

He said there was no triage system designed to deal with the issues people faced and to get them resolved before coming to court.

“That’s where we come in from a legislative perspective — to have housing authorities to be held accountable to some degree to carry out services to prevent homelessness.”

He said the aim was to establish a triage mechanism that would be good for both landlord and tenant but which stopped the tenant from losing their home.

The draft legislation was still at a very early stage and the group was “working out the kinks”.

When it is complete, the proposal will be presented to the Attorney-General and, it is hoped, get the support of the Government.

“Hopefully by 2025 we will have a draft piece of legislation that will place a duty on housing associations and other agencies, that they must deal with people in a very proactive way to prevent homelessness,” Mr Justice Wolffe said.

“We’re looking at timelines where they will have to do certain things by a certain time.”

Asked about private landlords, Mr Justice Wolffe said it was hoped that the legislation would encourage them to seek advice from housing associations.

He explained: “If a landlord needs to go through the court process, it’ll probably be a much longer process to get a matter resolved.

“If they were to seek the services of a housing association which has a duty to assist, then maybe the issues might be resolved before going to the court.

“What we find is that most landlords want to resolve the problem and most tenants are good tenants, but for the fact that they cannot pay their rent.

“If landlords are given some certainty that they’re going to get their rents paid and there’s a process by which that can happen, they’re far more open to resolving an issue.”

Ending Homelessness

The Royal Gazette, in conjunction with stakeholders including Home, has launched its Ending Homelessness campaign to remind the community that people affected by homelessness matter.

Home, and others, want to end homelessness. So do we. We want your support. We want you to change your perception of members of the unsheltered population. We want you to help lobby for simple changes. We want you to show compassion.

Homeless people want to work so that they can be self-sufficient. They did not choose to be homeless, and in many cases their plight was brought about by systemic failings in this country.

Mr Justice Wolffe said that he and other working group members — Aaron Crichlow, one of the founders of the community group Bermuda Is Love,Komlah Foggo-Wilson, who sits on the board of the Bermuda Housing Corporation, and Home’s executive director, Denise Carey — had noticed how the face of homelessness had changed.

He noted: “A few years ago, the demographics of people coming to my courtroom for things like rent arrears changed.

“They were people who, prior to finding themselves in court, were paying the bills, were doing well, were working on Front Street, in international business, but who were coming to the court literally one pay cheque away from being homeless.

“I felt that in some respects, not all, that the law did not protect those individuals.”

Mr Justice Wolffe said the law was very clinical. “For example, you are behind in your rent, you come to court, the court looks at it very clinically, and you could get evicted at some point in time.”

How many are homeless?

In 2010, the Bermuda Census identified 82 people experiencing homelessness. By 2016, that number had risen to 138.

According to Home, the Department of Statistics developed those estimates based on counting rough sleepers and the population housed in the Salvation Army emergency shelter.

As of December 31, 2023, Home recorded Bermuda’s homeless population as 811.

He added: “Because of my job, I see the very real effects of homelessness. There’s a direct correlation between persons who are homeless and criminal behaviour.

“We have known for a very long time that homelessness actually spurs on other types of social ills.”

He added: “If you’re homeless, you’re more likely to engage in risky behaviours and in some cases criminal behaviour.

“How do you concentrate on maths and English when you’re worrying about where you’re going to lay your head?

“If we are able to stamp out homelessness, we can deal with a lot of the social ills which I see inside the courtroom.”

To see the draft Plan to End Homelessness, see Related Media

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Published June 22, 2024 at 7:59 am (Updated June 22, 2024 at 8:13 am)

Laws around homelessness too reactionary, judge says

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