It is said that governments are judged by how they treat the most vulnerable members in their respective societies. Guyana is not an exception. In the general scheme of things, and with glaring challenges on virtually every problem in Guyana, there are some critical issues that will not get the attention they rightly deserve from the government.
The issue of homelessness falls into this category. It exists in plain view on our city streets and the question is often asked who is at fault. While some may blame the homeless for their unfortunate situation, the fact that the homeless population in Guyana has been steadily increasingly should be of concern to all and sundry.
It has become much more than eyesores as we pass them huddled on the pavement wrapped in rags and sitting or lying on cardboards with their hands outstretch for help.
Many have stated that the homeless is an embarrassment to the country and they need to find work and not expect handouts. Others feel that the government should assist them by providing shelter, food and clothing and other basic human amenities.
However, the issue of homelessness in Guyana should not be taken lightly. Homelessness and sleeping on the streets in Georgetown and other towns across the country have scaled to a national level. On any given night, hundreds if not thousands of vagrants can be found sleeping on pavements wherever they exist.
Governments past and present have seemingly dropped the ball when it comes to this social problem, despite our relatively strong welfare system. The inaction is perhaps most glaring with the rise of the homeless population. It is normal to see the homeless on the streets trying to get any cover they can when the vast majority of us are battened down in warm beds.
It is unacceptable that a country would have so many homeless people on the streets. Of course, there is the reality that most of the homeless suffer from some mental illness. Under the best of conditions they would still end up on the streets. Many have been removed and placed in homes and shelters only to return to the streets at the first opportunity.
.Over the years, governments have attempted to reduce or end homelessness. Organizations such as the Salvation Army, churches and other humanitarian groups are now trying to help the homeless.
Our failure to deal with the problem has long been hindered by stereotypes. Not all homeless people are drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes or outcasts. In most cases, their problems are far more complex.
As a people, we should not view homelessness as a punishment or a disease. A person may end up on the street for any number of reasons. Some come from broken homes; many are victims of misfortune, illness, lack of employment, drug or alcohol addiction, and others have been rejected by family or friends.
Efforts to remove the homeless from the streets and put them in a shelter may be a good start but they are not enough. Rather, the authorities must be able to implement holistic programmes at the shelters and work with those organisations to give them a second chance to become productive citizens in society.
As a country, we need a new mindset. Homelessness must be addressed from the political level all the way down to the ordinary citizen. It must be a priority for the government and should be treated as a national issue.
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