A government official stated recently that squatting in Trinidad and Tobago is “out of control” with some 220,000 squatters in settlements in various parts of the country.
Labour Minister Jennifer Baptiste-Primus said the problem is getting worse, noting that 6,000 new squatting structures were built in the last six years with an additional 800 in the last eight months.
Assuming these figures are correct, then more than 20 per cent of the national population is homeless – one in five.
It’s an alarming figure for a country that has a GDP of US$44.32 billion and per capita GDP of US$32,800.
In addition, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has removed T&T from its list of developing countries.
In the midst of such wealth, the World Bank has concluded that the poor comprise about 21 per cent of the population, with half of them “unable to afford the cost of a minimum food basket”.
Growing poverty, hunger and homelessness have become a national crisis.
Yet the only solution from the administration is a squatter tax, proposed by the Land Settlement Agency (LSA) to a Parliamentary Committee.
The proposal ignores reality and defies logic.
If these people are living below the poverty line and have been forced into squatting communities, the tax initiative won’t work; clearly, they can’t pay such a tax if they can barely afford to buy food.
The problem we face doesn’t even include the thousands waiting for homes from the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) and those who would have qualified for housing under the Land for the Landless programme.
Squatters are an army of desperate people who have no other means of finding shelter so they occupy lands they don’t own and erect structures for their families.
Perhaps the starting point is for the State to accept its responsibility for solving this problem.
One suggestion is a blanket amnesty for everyone on State lands, which gives every squatter proper title to the land.
But the State must be sincere, leaving out partisanship. Every citizen has a right to equal treatment regardless of political preferences, ethnic origin, religion and social standing.
The HDC home-building programme has been deemed a colossal failure so the government should consider scrapping it and go to a model used by the former Caroni (1975) Limited through its Sugar Welfare Housing Programme.
That initiative provided the land, infrastructure and a small grant to people who went on to build homes and communities across the country in a sharing arrangement between them and the State.
It was a win-win situation and saved millions. It also generated employment and avoided corruption.
One housing expert noted: “If the government begins thinking outside the box and uses these rules for squatters we would make a giant leap forward in solving this national problem.
“We are only dealing with about 60,000 families so it’s not as impossible as it seems.”