Is the recently announced plan for the Bermuda Housing Corporation to use refurbished shipping containers as emergency housing units for homeless people the best we can do for our people that fall on hard times?
The use of shipping containers for housing is not a new concept; containers have been transformed into housing facilities in various places, so this is not a criticism of their use but rather a reflection about how our failure to holistically address the unmet needs of the homeless and marginalized in Bermuda.
The pressing need to provide adequate emergency housing facilities for our homeless has been bounced around between governments for more than 10 years. Before the 2012 General Election, the Progressive Labor Party government promised to redevelop the former Bishop Spencer school buildings into emergency housing facilities. The One Bermuda Alliance won the 2012 Election and took steps to carry out the redevelopment project in partnership with the Salvation Army. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed but terms could not be agreed so the project could not progress. In 2017 the PLP once again became the Government. In 2018 the announced a partnership with the Salvation Army and plans to develop the Bishop Spencer facility into a homeless shelter with around 100 bed spaces with a section of the facility to be used as a transitional living space. In addition to accommodations, this new facility was to have on-site programmes to help address some of the issues that may have contributed to some of the persons becoming homeless.
That latest PLP Government/Salvation Army partnership was a promising undertaking that unfortunately has not yet materialized. So, instead of getting a purpose-built facility to help address some physical and social needs of the homeless members of our community, the current plan is to refurbish shipping containers for use as emergency housing units.
Governments can and will find money for many things, but when it comes to our homeless, other things often take priority. When we do not demonstrate in tangible ways that their needs are important even if they cannot contribute as much as others that remain high on the priority list, it speaks volumes within the community and not in a good way.
Recently it was announced in the House of Assembly that the cost of running the emergency shelter at Cedarbridge Academy for four months was approximately $614k which is relatively low compared to overall Government expenditure. Why couldn’t these monies have been invested in permanent resources and facilities for the homeless? Surely the Bishop Spencer site is not the only facility available and the Salvation Army not the only possible entity that the Government could partner with, even though they are ideal because of their long-standing relevant history of service to Bermuda. Habitat for Humanity and the Women’s Resource Centre identified the pressing need to address the increasing problem of homelessness among families with children and have established the Transformational Living Centre as a purposed designed housing complex on Parson’s Road in Pembroke (in the former Pembroke Rest Home). The Centre will provide shelter for women and children up to one year, and “families will receive a range of developmental, educational and therapeutic programs that are designed to heal, empower and transition, with a goal of achieving self-sufficiency and the capacity to thrive successfully within the broader community.”
It is interesting that the need to assist women and children was identified and is being addressed and yet similar needs for homeless men in particular was been recognized as far back as 1982 and remains unresolved. The current PLP Government has another opportunity to fix this problem and doing so will require them to follow through on their promise to provide adequate facilities with the social, development and therapeutic programmes needed to help solved the issues of homelessness. We are a small town on the world’s stage, and if we commit and follow through with our promises amazing things can happen for the people that governments are elected to serve.
Bermuda have a number of people sleeping in cars, on beaches, in cemeteries, parks and abandoned buildings, bunking on other people’s floors and living rooms. Creating spaces using refurbished shipping containers provides shelter, but we need solve the problem, not band-aid it. The homeless population is growing and with the increasing numbers, it is not going to shrink by creating inexpensive structures to house them as the core issues of mental illness, addiction, joblessness and other issues that have contributed to some of our people taking to the streets must be addressed. Not everyone is homeless because they are irresponsible or simply chose to be on the streets.
Every Government has the difficult task of striking a balance between meeting the needs of its people and controlling costs and spending. While that is true, we must take care to ensure that we help the people that need it most. When promises are made, promises must be kept as the future of our island depends on it.