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Arrears built up over ‘massive’ time frame

Changing the locks: more than 20 families were due to be evicted from the Gulfstream transitional housing complex (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Public works minister Craig Cannonier is investigating how emergency housing tenants racked up rent arrears over “a massive amount of time”.

Mr Cannonier also expressed concern at the late hour he was informed more than 20 families were due to be evicted from the Gulfstream transitional living complex in St David’s because they owed at least $10,000 each for their rooms.

The minister had announced a reprieve for the residents on Tuesday afternoon, shortly after The Royal Gazette revealed the locks would be changed on the property within 24 hours.

Speaking to this newspaper yesterday, Mr Cannonier said: “Of course it is a concern that within 24 hours I get a notice that there are 20-something families being removed.

“This didn’t happen overnight. They tried to find those who were challenged with not having a job — they have assisted there.

“They have assisted in trying to get people financial assistance to help pay their rent; they have been working on this for years for some folk.

“There are people who are in arrears — and the range is from a year to three years in back rent — that is a massive amount of time. I am doing an investigation into how we got to this point.

“$550 a month may not seem like a lot to some of us. The Housing Corporation has done a stellar job in trying to assist; now we have got to a point where it has become painful.

“We have got to find a solution.

“More than half of those who were in arrears have already come forward with a plan on how to help with the arrears. That is a positive thing and speaks to the Housing Corporation.”

Mr Cannonier said talks would continue with the tenants today, adding: “What we do with the rest, we are still working through. By no means do we want to start putting anyone out on the street.

“Even those who are getting help need more help. When we have large numbers of people in this situation, it begs the question maybe there is something else we are not addressing.

“And so Government needs to step in and say, how did we get to this point and how do we keep it from happening again?”

Meanwhile, Sheelagh Cooper of the Coalition for the Protection of Children criticised “shocking” measures to penalise the tenants.

Residents more than $10,000 in arrears were given ten days by the Bermuda Housing Corporation to leave their rooms, in a letter sent on August 22.

Ms Cooper commended Mr Cannonier’s decision to reprieve the tenants as “a swift and compassionate response to the shocking attempt by the BHC to put families out into the street”.

She said: “Hopefully this will lead to a re-examination of the approach to struggling and vulnerable families more in keeping with a civil society.”

Ms Cooper said the repercussion of evicting families unable to pay rent had been covered in the 2011 documentary Poverty in Paradise.

In particular, she said the anxieties of poverty had a demonstrable link to “anger, hostility and disconnectedness” as children grew up.

Prolonged chronic stress impeded brain development, she said, injuring faculties such as decision-making and emotional stability, and leading to “a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, creating emotional chaos for the growing child”.

“While many feel that ‘delinquent’ mothers need a big reality check, the dire consequences for her children must be factored into any decision to remove support,” Ms Cooper added.

Taking children from homeless parents and putting them in foster care would cost “far more” than subsidising a family’s room.

“This is not even taking into account the huge emotional cost to the family of proceeding through the courts to take the children into care.

“Having spoken to hundreds of women throughout the years who have been faced with the terrible choice of paying their rent or feeding and clothing their children, I will say that while there may be some that take advantage of the government handouts, they are few and far between.

“I do not believe that there is one single family living at Gulfstream that wants to be there.”