Dominica’s ‘paros’ or vagrants present a remarkably complex and perplexing problem.
Addicted; mentally ill; mentally and physically disabled; elderly or ailing – it seems that more and more of them are falling through cracks in our society and becoming fixtures on our streets.
Stripped of stability, self-respect and decency, these vagrants often become desperate, even dangerous. Sometimes they beg. Sometimes they steal. And sometimes they kill.
People were startled in June when well-known ‘paro’ Andy Carbon was murdered. And the nation was stunned when police held an infamous vagrant for that murder and two earlier murders of other ‘paros’.
The possibility that Dominica’s first known serial killer might be a ‘paro’ has thrust the issue of vagrancy to the forefront of public awareness. People are calling for the ‘paro’ problem to be solved once and for all.
Concerns reached a fever pitch about vagrants harassing locals and visitors while creating public health and environmental problems by littering, urinating and defecating in the streets – and in one case, smearing fecal matter on the walls of a bus shed in Roseau.
Much has been spoken and written by various stakeholders over the years about how to solve the problem. The mood of the nation suits the exploration of all viable options.
Government & Health Officials
Speaking at the opening of the 2015/2016 cruise ship season, Tourism Minister Robert Tonge noted that the issue of vagrancy is not solely the responsibility of Government.
“All of the supposed vagrants that you see on the streets they all have family; they belong to someone so we ourselves have to help. It cannot be done by the government only, so all of us have to do our part,” he said.
However, when contacted on the issue this month, Tonge declined to comment and directed DNO to the Ministry of Health.
In 2015, Health Minister Dr Kenneth Darroux pointed out that alleviating vagrancy requires collaborative effort and should not be limited to, “tourism, legal affairs, national security, housing and other social services”.
Unfortunately, Dr Darroux could not be reached this month for his comments on this issue and his ministry’s current plans to deal with it.
Speaking on a radio programme in April this year, Head of the Acute Psychiatric Unit (APU) at the Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH), Dr. Griffin Benjamin called on the government to provide suitable accommodation for vagrants.
On the programme, he emphasized that the psychiatric unit is unable to house the vagrants for extended periods, pointing out, “It’s not a place to stay forever; it’s not your home. . . It is not my job to give you a house to live. . . I am only the medical doctor working for the Government.”
Benjamin said he is only responsible for providing vagrants with medication and treatment. “But if the government decides they are not building any house for vagrants, but they’re building houses for all pregnant women . . . all women that can work, all old people who have families to take care of them . . . giving them all they want. . .
“Some women have nine and 10 children and the government think it’s their job to take care of these people with nine and 10 children walking the street, living their lives,” he remarked.
Last year, Minister of Youth Affairs, Justina Charles announced that Government had approved an initial sum of $102,500 to deal with vagrancy in Roseau.
Charles, who at the time was representing Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit at an inauguration ceremony of the Roseau City Council, said a comprehensive programme was in the cards for vagrants.
She described the programme Government was aiming for as a “total, thorough assessment of the individuals to look at their physical, social and psychological well-being and a management plan [which] will be developed in order to meet their specific, identified needs”.
A way forward
A source has revealed to Dominica News Online that Minister Charles was speaking about a three-component programme which will soon be unrolled.
Through this programme, difficult patients will be admitted to the hospital for stabilisation.
“The very difficult ones that will cause public nuisance will be admitted, stabilised, brought to some form of rationality,” the official said.
The programme will be executed largely by the Psychiatric Unit of the hospital.
DNO learnt that these individuals will then be encouraged to participate voluntarily in a day programme at the hospital where all their basic needs will be met.
They will be given meals and clothing and professionals, including psychologists and social workers, will work with them to determine what problems led them to vagrancy and help them find solutions.
“So whether it be family, alienation, isolation, economic difficulties, no houses . . . they will work with them to transform them,” DNO was told.
The government-funded programme requires infrastructural adjustments and additional resources, including human resources, as well as resources and arrangements and the provision of meals.
Efforts will be made to resolve accommodation issues for those who are homeless.
“The model we will follow is that of community and family integration and not institutionalization. We are hoping that they can be assisted to be reintegrated into the community,” the source said.
DNO was unable to get further comments on the programme from Dr Benjamin or Dr Darroux.
Bonti Liverpool, who runs the ‘Wisdom to Know’ programme for vagrants, described the project and shared his views on the ‘paro’ issue.
“We assist vagrants by and large . . . we have widened now to anybody who is vulnerable,” Liverpool stated.
He noted that the programme has existed for 10 years now, and in his experience, 90-95 percent of vagrants are addicted to drugs, alcohol or both.
His programme is geared to offer a 10-month treatment course, which includes detoxification, coping techniques, farming and other forms of treatment.
“Most [vagrants] do not complete the programme. Most of them complete the programme for three months and drop out and then come back again and drop out… the rate of relapse is high,” he remarked.
He added, “But we do have success stories where some have completed the programme and are now contributing members of society.”
Liverpool said his programme is financed mainly by donations from individuals and sometimes the church.
Government funded a pig farm that is essential to the farming component of the rehab programme.
Liverpool said the main challenge in treating ‘paros’ is determining what is responsible for their situations.
He recommended a live-in facility for vagrants. “That facility should have a day to day schedule . . . with a view to reintegrating them back into society as normal people,” he asserted.
Liverpool commented that society creates vagrancy and therefore has to “take back its children and try to reintegrate them into society. . .
“The ideal thing would be a live-in, residential drug programme,” he noted, adding that it should be complemented by a half-way home to help reintegrate rehabilitated vagrants into society gradually.
Such a programme should also include a drop-in centre where vagrants could go for baths, meals, clothing and other basic needs, he said.
Liverpool disclosed that plans are in place to set up a long-term shelter and a drop-in centre for vagrants.
At the moment, Liverpool operates his treatment facility at his home at Grand Bay, but he is moving to set up a long-term shelter in October.
DNO also contacted former Parliamentarian, Norris Prevost who has provided Sunday lunch for vagrants in Roseau for many years.
Prevost said the ‘paro’ problem is serious and has to be dealt with firmly. But he cautioned that it also requires compassionate consideration of their individual challenges.
He pointed out that many vagrants are mentally ill and some are drug addicts. Others cannot find work, he said, simply because they are deportees or ex-prisoners.
The former representative of the Roseau Central Constituency said that up to five years ago an average of about 40 vagrants showed up for Sunday lunch, but since then he has seen the figure grow to around 100 or more.
Vagrants are transient, but Prevost thinks there are about 70 to 100 vagrants who live in the streets of Roseau continuously.
“What is of great concern . . . is the fact that I am seeing a lot more young people . . . who turn up for lunch . . . Unless we come up with solutions, the problem is going to be acute for a very long time.”
“It is a reflection, I believe, of the dysfunctional situation that Dominica is in right now at the national government level and the local government level as well,” he commented.
Prevost believes the community has a key role to play in the solution to the problem, but because of the complex nature of vagrancy, he believes several arms of Government must own up to their responsibility to deal with ‘paros’ effectively.
He identified these as the Health Ministry, Prison, Immigration, Welfare Division, the police and even the village councils.
“You do not see any sort of serious preventive measures happening on a consistent basis. Individual citizens are the main ones who seem to have the responsibility and the willingness to try to maintain some sort of order . . . I would say that we can do better,” Prevost added.
He pointed to the urgent need for a public rehab facility to help persons addicted to alcohol and drugs.
He also sees an urgent need for a facility to assess, treat and temporarily house ‘paros’ with a view to reintegrating them into society.
“We as society do have a role to play. Families have a role to play. Our aim in relation to the vagrants should be to try to get them back into useful citizens.
The process of getting them back into being useful citizens must entail those who are capable; to get them back into work, help them to overcome their addictions, reconnecting them with their families and also working with families so they can take a certain amount of responsibility,” Prevost said.
Noting that vagrancy cannot be ignored and is not likely to disappear completely, he emphasised the need for stakeholders to unite and tackle the problem.
Prevost maintained that there should be an accurate assessment of the number of ‘paros’ in the nation and a careful determination of the extent of the problem, as well as the main causes of vagrancy.
While the ‘paro’ problem remains one of Dominica’s most intractable social ills, the murder of Andy Carbon has created much public unease about the situation and has injected new urgency into the task of finding the elusive solution.
May the surge in public awareness caused by Carbon’s death trigger urgent, innovative action to seal the cracks in society and rescue our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.