By RICARDO WELLS
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE government’s efforts to eradicate shanty town communities have come under fire, with prominent attorney and human rights activist Fred Smith yesterday threatening a lawsuit to block any attempts to raze homes in these areas.
Last night, Mr Smith insisted he would do all in his power to stop the government’s “indiscriminate and arbitrary” push to “destroy the lives of thousands of legal residents”.
“This is sickening destruction of the worst kind,” Mr Smith, QC, told The Tribune. “The government has taken to these communities with letters in hand to tell persons with nowhere left to go that their homes, many of which have been occupied for decades, will be torn down if they can’t give legal documents to say they have a right to be there.
“This is like Fred Mitchell’s immigration policy of treating people on the streets as outlaws because they don’t have papers. The government cannot be judge, jury and executioner at the same time. If these homeowners have broken the law, take them to court and prove it. People are innocent until proven guilty. What law have they broken to have their homes bulldozed? The government may as well bulldoze 90 percent of the homes Over-the-Hill.
“I’ve taken the day to go to these communities and speak with the residents. What I saw was government personnel walking through these communities and handing out notices without ascertaining any of the important factors. These are the homes of human beings, not rodents or livestock.
“Trust me,” he said, “I will do what needs to be done to stop this. If need be, I will bring a lawsuit against the government to stop them from tearing down homes, people’s kingdoms. It is not right or legal.”
Mr Smith said the government, in its haste to score cheap political points, failed to provide any recourse to those that could be adversely affected.
He said a large percentage of the homes being threatened by the government’s clampdown on shanty town communities are those of poor, legal residents struggling to make a life in the Bahamas.
“Many of them are still investing all they have in getting their legal documents in order. They are there because this is all they can afford. These are homes with toilets, with gas tanks, with working facilities. The narrative the government is pushing is that these are homes that are not up to par, some are not, but many are similar to the homes in Bain and Grants Town and all the other inner city communities; I don’t see any government officials walking through those communities with letter in hand.
“Why are we targeting these communities?
“Simple, they are poor, black, migrant, mostly Haitian ethnic communities,” he said. “Why are we threatening these residents with destruction and eviction? Take power, water, sanitation, paint and hope to them, just like the Minnis Over-the-hill economic free zones.”
Mr Smith said the government has failed to, in its attempt to eradicate shanty towns, provide due process.
“Some are renting here. Some, who are illegal and waiting to go through the process, are too afraid to come forward,” he said. “All the government did in these communities was threaten and promise doom, destruction, demolition and eradication as if these people are subhuman vermin with no human rights deserving only of eradication from the face of the earth.”
On Monday, Labour Minister Dion Foulkes confirmed the start of the government’s three-part legal notice process for shanty town residents across the country, insisting the July 31 eviction deadline will be adhered to.
Mr Foulkes, who spearheads the government’s Shanty Town Action Task Force, confirmed officers sanctioned by the body had commenced the delivery of a request for shanty town residents to show legal documentation of their right to the lands they now occupy.
Despite government pronouncements, Mr Smith said the task force never showed will to “work with residents.”
“I was a member of the board when it was started, I was invited to be a part of it. All that was discussed was destruction. Once that was made clear, I resigned,” he told The Tribune.
“There was never talk about working to properly regulate these communities,” Mr Smith said. “There was never a conversation had that was built around going in and improving what needed to be addressed; none.
“I kept in contact with the minister. I have implored him and many ministers to address this matter from a standpoint of helping these communities to be regulated. These persons don’t have the means to go anywhere else. When you remove them from these communities, where do they go?
“When you go in and make these people homeless, you are creating the circumstances to breed crime. We don’t need that now,” Mr Smith added.
If shanty town residents cannot prove their legal right to reside in their homes, residents will be removed and the structures torn down.
Mr Foulkes said upon completion of this process, the government would have completely removed all debris, unsanctioned homes, derelict vehicles, outdoor toilets and abandoned animals from the properties – rendering the lots vacant.