Friday, December 18, 2009

Bahamas: Urban Renewal programme workers frustrated over political wrangling

Tribune Staff Reporter

COMMUNITY workers have told The Tribune about their frustration at the political wrangling over Urban Renewal.

Talk has raged for months among politicians about who founded the programme, who changed the programme, who stopped and restarted the programme, and whose programme was more effective.

But people who work on the programme say the political points-scoring is damaging Urban Renewal and affecting the people who are in dire need.

"People believe we are not doing anything and it takes away from the work which is being done," said Kolamae Pedican, manager for the Kemp Road Urban Renewal Centre.

"I am working hard and it makes me feel like the work I am doing does not matter. When people listen to the politicians they stop coming. They say they thought we were closed.

"There have been changes in the programme, but I am a civil servant and I have to respect the changes. The message needs to go out that Urban Renewal centres are not closed. We are still serving the public, we are still helping people and we still work very closely with the police. That baby just needs to go to rest."

Urban Renewal was introduced by the Progressive Liberal Party in their last term in government. The programme received international recognition and was lauded as a success story. When the Free National Movement assumed control of the government, they made changes to the programme, which have been widely criticised by the PLP. Under the PLP, the Royal Bahamas Police Force played a central role in the management and operation of the programme.

At the Kemp Road Centre, four officers and two reservists worked in the centre with case aids from the Department of Social Services. Pedican was one of those case aids serving under Centre Coordinator, Inspector Frankie-Mae Mather. The police are no longer stationed in the centre's offices, and some of their community policing activities, such as being stationed in schools, have been discontinued. However, they continue to work closely with the centre management, and with school principals.

Some members of the PLP have been critical of the removal of police officers from direct involvement in the programme. Some have further questioned the appointment of Ella Lewis as the Director, saying her position as former FNM candidate for Farm Road and Centreville, which is the constituency of Perry Christie, Leader of the Opposition, compromises her authority.

"I think the back and forth about what has been changed has had a negative affect on the programme. It is taking a lot of effort to go into the communities to inform people that the centres are open and the programmes are still active," said Ms Lewis.

"I was appointed because I am qualified: I am community based and community active. I live in an urban area. I have worked with inner city people all of my life. I have love and respect for the community and I am committed to making the Bahamas better through urban renewal," she said.

Ms Lewis said she acknowledges the good work that was done under Urban Renewal by the PLP. She said it was an excellent programme, but it lacked some of the structure necessary. Under her leadership, she said she is working to add that aspect to the programme to make it even more successful.

While the needs of each community vary, the nine Urban Renewal centres focus on ten core programmes, including: after-school programmes, where students get help with homework and school projects; senior citizen programmes, where seniors can participate in seminars, workshops, tours and socials; and youth activities, such as marching bands.

At the start of the FNM administration, two of the centres were closed for no more than two months, according to Ms Lewis, in order to facilitate staffing changes. All of the other centres remained open and active. In many instances, staff members carried over from the former administration.

At the Kemp Road Centre, three of the four current staff members served under the former structure. Former Centre Coordinator, Inspector Frankie-Mae Mather, provided the training for the new management.

PLP Senator Allyson Maynard-Gibson has been a vocal supporter of Urban Renewal under the PLP leadership. In her presentation on the Senate floor this week, she read several references from a report, "Urban Renewal: Past, Present and Possible Future" authored by Rhodes Scholar and physician Desiree Cox. Mrs Maynard-Gibson spoke about the success of the programme in curbing crime in urban communities.

"My point is bigger than Urban Renewal. I am interested in the problem of crime and seeing a major paradigm shift in this country so we have something that works, and so Bahamian people can live in peace and tranquility. My responsibility is to ensure the issues that impact our people are aired and that the government acts on issues that are critical," said Mrs Maynard-Gibson.

"There is no bigger issue than crime. Urban renewal was a transformative programme. I do not want to diminish the people working in Urban Renewal, I think they are trying their best, but if something is working it should be given more resources," she said.

Work in Urban Renewal centres across the island is continuing. The Kemp Road Centre hosted a Christmas tree lighting ceremony this week that attracted both young and old residents. One of their regular activities is a feeding programme. They work closely with the food rescue organisation Hands for Hunger to feed a steady stream of residents daily, who are unable to feed themselves.

"People are really appreciative and they look to us for support. They depend on us to educate them on things like applying for passports or getting a police record clean. They come to us to find out how to get help from the various government social services. If someone dies they call us; if someone is sick they call us; if someone gets locked up or married, they call us," said Ms Pedican.

Supporters of Urban Renewal say they are not interested in playing political games or engaging in a back and forth political debate. But Bahamas Democratic Movement leader Cassius Stuart said the debate is unavoidably political because politicians from the PLP and FNM are holding fast to particular positions and being very vocal about it.

"Quite frankly I believe both political leaders have been immature in their dealing with urban renewal policy. It is destroying the essence of what the programme should really be. We have a high degree of political immaturity at the top which is why we have problems at the bottom. There should be a clear and concise direction as to where the programme is going so everyone can have clarity," said Mr Stuart.

Mr Stuart said both parties have political motivations, which is underlying the heated rhetoric. In the case of the FNM, he said they want to claim that their changes were the real source of success for the programme. In the case of the PLP, he said they want to use the programme in its original form to propel them back into power.

"Who is going to suffer? Workers will suffer because there is no clear direction as to how the programme should be run. The people on the ground, who should really be receiving the assistance, young people, the elderly and less fortunate, will suffer if the workers can't do what they are supposed to do. Now it is a big mess because it is a political game. We are wasting time, because the politicians are confusing everything," said Mr Stuart.

Mr Stuart suggested the best solution for Urban Renewal would be to have it run by a non-governmental organisation. He said the objectives of the programme, which he identified as rebuilding urban communities and strengthening the relationship between residents and the police, require political non-interference, and responsible members of the community should look at taking it over.

In the new year, The Tribune will be looking at the achievements of Urban Renewal.

December 17, 2009