Mon | May 20, 2019

Editorial | Squatter problem all over again

Published:Saturday | February 16, 2019 | 12:16 AM

It must have been déjà vu for the million or so Jamaicans who live in squatter communities listening to Thursday’s Throne Speech.

Attempts to grapple with this problem and all its attendant social ills have eluded successive administrations. We recall in the past, legislators from both sides of the aisle calling for amendment to the Trespass Act to make squatting a criminal offence and attracting appropriate penalties. Unfortunately, there was never consensus on how to improve the existing legal framework to make squatting illegal.

We also recall local authorities railing against squatters who made their homes in vulnerable areas such as gully banks and river courses and failed attempts to get them to move to higher ground, especially when disasters threaten.

Our archives are replete with examples of the backlash and ugly confrontations that grab media headlines at every attempt to remove squatters off lands that they do not own but which they have lived on for many years.

From all the above, it would be reasonable to conclude, therefore, that squatting is an emotive issue that is too hot to handle and best left alone. There is a sense that some politicians see an advantage in securing a block of votes if they were able to provide support to squatters.

Many may recall that the year 2006 ushered into existence a Squatter Management Unit under the leadership of the late former Minister Roger Clarke.

Some important lessons were learnt from these combined efforts, namely, without adequate resources, including land for the landless and shelter options, it is simply impossible to satisfactorily address the problem of informal settlements that have mushroomed in the ensuing years.

Fresh after his 2016 election, Prime Minister Andrew Holness promised to deal with squatting. He projected that 22,000 houses would be erected over five years, built through private-sector partnerships and accessible through own-a-home loans provided by the National Housing Trust. We assume that this project is ongoing three years after it was announced.

Ultimately, the extent to which persons can seize this opportunity depends on their ability to work. If persons in the inner city are not working and have no real prospect of finding a job, their situation will not change.

COLLABORATE WITH FOOD FOR THE POOR

The Governor General’s Throne Speech advises that solving the squatter problem will be a priority this year. We learnt from the speech that there will be a comprehensive multiagency national survey of squatter settlements “to accurately ascertain the extent of squatting in the country”.

We would have thought that much of that data is already in the hands of these multiagencies and the Department of Statistics.

The mention of a survey is a subtle presage of delays and months to collect and collate this information, but we are hoping that the project will be far advanced when the next Budget comes along in a year’s time.

Yet, we understand that the purpose of the survey is to provide critical socio-economic, demographic, and environmental information on squatter settlements to inform the policy interventions as they are developed. It would also be valuable in identifying persons who are alleged to own homes elsewhere yet live in these communities for whatever reasons.

The governor general announced that other aspects of the project included social housing that would include the provision of indigent housing, the relocation of vulnerable communities, and the upgrading of tenements, or ‘big yards’.

While we await the details, we feel that if the Government is to get moving on this priority programme, time is of the essence. It would be efficient and savvy, for instance, to use relevant available data and talent such as collaborating with the Roman Catholic charity Food For The Poor, which has led the way in social housing.