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Call for more help for Island’s homeless

A national plan is needed to tackle the issue of homelessness in Bermuda, according to Opposition MP Michael Weeks.

Opening a take-note debate in the House of Assembly on Friday, the Shadow Minister of Health and Community Affairs said treating homelessness as a criminal matter was increasingly “exclusionary, archaic and unproductive”, arguing that more emphasis should be placed on mental health and social services to address the problems.

“I am convinced more than ever we need a national strategy regarding homelessness and its connection to substance abuse, mental health and other economic and social problems that give rise to this situation.

“Persons who find themselves homeless today need help and they need it now.

“They need a clear and concise pathway back to full functionality, a pathway that works. A pathway that retains their dignity and a pathway that is accessible at any time by anybody.

“How can someone who is homeless find help at Financial Assistance if one of the requirements is to have a fixed address?

“Why is it that the addiction counsellors who work with addicts use a medical model of disease for treatment and recovery, yet the funding and the system that provides help comes from the criminal justice system?

“The best minds in the business understand addiction as a public health issue, so why is our department of National Drug Control under the Ministry of Public Safety? Is it because we want to criminalise the homeless and addiction or is it that we believe that is who they are — criminals?”

He noted the disproportionately majority (91.5 per cent) of the Island's homeless who are black, arguing that race, in addition to mental health issues and drug addiction, play a role.

“We would be foolish to ignore race and/or racism as another casual factor in terms of a contributing factor for homelessness and other social-economic ills,” he said. “It would amount to professional malpractice in all due respects for the respective practitioners, including black professionals, to ignore entirely this potential factor as invariably is the case in Bermuda.

“We should weigh all of the available data, science and, in fact, evidence, even if it makes some within our society uncomfortable.”

He noted a study in the Journal of Counselling Psychology, which found that perceptions of racism were inversely associated with psychological wellbeing and positively associated with psychological distress, adding that while racism was far from the only cause, it was something that was often ignored.

Patricia Gordon-Pamplin, the Minister of Community, Culture and Sport, said she was disappointed by some of Mr Weeks's comments, suggesting that he was accusing the Bermuda Government of inaction when the issues date back decades.

She said the Government had been putting programmes in place to ensure that those who wanted help could find it, including looking at the policies of Financial Assistance, despite the current economic constraints.

“Collectively we can come up with ideas to make sure the situation is addressed in our society without hearing the negativity coming from the other side,” she said.

Michael Scott, the Shadow Attorney-General, lamented Ms Gordon Pamplin's speech as “puerile” and criticised its brevity and lack of substance.

He highlighted the dire state of the homeless facility on Parsons Road and that the charity Focus, which helps those suffering from addiction, was at risk.

“That the priority is on social welfare is lamentable,” he said. “Exhibit A is underfunded education and she has nothing to offer but less financial assistance and an entrepreneur programme.”

Jamahl Simmons, the Shadow Minister of Tourism and Economic Development, called for the creation of a “black economic empowerment programme”, saying there were many small black businesses who were unable to compete on an even playing field with big businesses.

He said one of the aims could be to triple the number of black college graduates so that government jobs did not “become the backstop when all else fails”.

Craig Cannonier, the Minister of Public Works, described the problem as a “black cultural issue” rather than a race issue.

After congratulating Mr Weeks on a “great paper”, he described how Bermuda had gone from almost no unemployment to 7 per cent.

“It's not a racial issue it is a cultural issue that us as blacks are having. We have been able to move to the top through all areas of work, whether labour or blue-collar or white-collar. It is a black cultural issue that we can solve. It is now time, not to cast stones, but to find a solution.”

Mr Scott took issue with Mr Cannonier pointing to a number of reports written in the past, including Pitt and Wooding, focusing on social disparity.

“The small black players will be disqualified as they have tax payments outstanding. The likes of D&G [Construction] and large companies don't have that problem. We don't see a good integration of wealthy enterprise merging with small black,” he said.

Seeking action: Michael Weeks, the Shadow Minister of Health and Community Affairs, told the House of Assembly that treating homelessness as a criminal matter was increasingly “archaic” (File photograph)

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Published December 14, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated December 14, 2015 at 8:18 am)

Call for more help for Island’s homeless

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