The Inherited Burden, Combating Homelessness in GuyanaIn 2015, David Granger became the president of Guyana, the Caribbean country located in mainland South America. He defeated then-incumbent President Donald Ramotar, whose party, the People’s Progressive Party, had been in power for 23 years. Granger inherited the bane in his predecessor’s side: homelessness in Guyana.

The Housing Crisis in Guyana

Guyana has many informal settlements, such as Tiger Bay. The government is having a hard time handling the housing crisis. In 2016, 52 families were living in Tiger Bay, located in the center of Georgetown, Guyana’s capital. Ramotar administration’s failed solution to the housing deficit was to give plots of land to those who could not afford it, thus forcing them into crippling debt. This was akin to winning a free car and not being able to keep the prize because the taxes are too much. Only 55% of those plots are now occupied. If those issued land did not begin construction within a designated timeframe, the land reverted to the government, but the debt that came with renovating the land remained with the citizens.

Many of those lands are on former plantations, which needed constant repairs to its water-logged soil and had sparse infrastructure. The government prioritized low-income families and state employees in their housing schemes. One scheme involved turnkey apartments, which are apartments that are already remodeled and ready to be rented out. A study from the Inter-American Development Bank in 2016 estimated that the country had a deficit of 20,000 homes for low-income families and 52,000 properties in need of repairs. The housing situation has also led to citizens of Tiger Bay adopting unhygienic practices because of a lack of proper plumbing.

President Granger and Homelessness in Guyana

On June 1, 2019, seven months after he lost a vote of no confidence, President Granger vowed to combat homelessness in Guyana. He said he would, “like to leave the office when there is not a single homeless Guyanese… every Guyanese will have a roof over his or her head.” President Granger based his vow against homelessness on the Guyanese constitution. The constitution states that “every citizen has the right to proper housing accommodation.” The president stated his new idea will not be connected to his predecessor’s attempts to fix homelessness in Guyana.

In February of 2020, former President Granger addressed the country and announced himself as “the man with the plan” to save Guyana. One of the problems Granger plans to fix is housing. To that end, the president announced the National Squatter Regularisation Commission (NSRC). The NSRC will use funds from the National Treasury to eliminate squatting and homelessness in Guyana.

In 2017, approximately $43 million were allocated from the Central Housing & Planning Authority (CH&PA) to have 72 houses built for squatters. The CH&PA stated that some of the squatting areas would become regulated and turned into proper housing schemes, while others like Plastic City will be relocated. Plastic City is among the 173 settlements that are being targeted by the government. In the first half of 2019, the CH&PA distributed 541 houses, which was 54.1% of the target for 2019.

Guyana’s 8 Goals to Combat Homelessness

In 2015, the country gave itself eight goals to accomplish by 2020:

  1. Finish infrastructure before allocating the lots.
  2. Begin construction of the homes.
  3. Promote partnership between the private and the sectors to simplify the provisions of social infrastructure and community services.
  4. Foster community involvement to identify and implement community projects.
  5. Coordinate projects with the collaboration of governmental and non-governmental organizations.
  6. Integrate developmental planning.
  7. Regulate and contain squatters.
  8. Complete the divestment of land.

The Progress of Eliminating Homelessness in Guyana

From 1998 to 2007, the government ran the Low-Income (LIS) to increase ownership of land and housing that have valid equity not tied to the government. It wanted to put equity in the hands of the people. Once the program ended, the Guyanese government received a loan of $27.9 million for a second version of the LIS. This incarnation of the LIS was focused on improving the qualities of impoverished families by granting them access to housing. That program ended in 2015. Subsequently, the CH&PA acquired another $3.1 million for the Hinterland Housing Project, a spin-off of the second LIS.

On February 28, 2020, the CH&PA handed 43 houses to the people of Sand Creek Village. The houses were built as part of the Hinterland Project. Of the $3.1 million granted to the Hinterland Project, approximately $311,358 was assigned to the Sand Creek Village.

In Guyana, the homeless population is stigmatized and looked down upon by their fellow countrymen. The homeless population is seen as people who have “failed” because of personal choices and not because they are victims of socio-economic failings that they have little to no control over. As a result, many homeless people suffer from poor mental health.

Recently, humanitarian organizations have focused their efforts on Georgetown. The Raising and Extending Arms to Care and Help (REACH) and Potluck teamed up with local volunteering physicians and donors to assist Georgetown’s homeless population. The vulnerable population received new clothes, assistance in baths and new haircuts. In 2018, the organization reached out to 100 people to raise $100,000 for “society’s forgotten citizens.” Additionally, the Potluck NGO assisted the Guyanese homeless population by providing blood pressure and blood sugar testing and giving out over-the-counter medications.

—Pedro Vega
Photo: Flickr

University of Southern California (USC) has a course called “Innovation In Engineering and Design for Global Crises.” As part of the class, a team of USC undergraduates visited the Moria refugee camp to learn from and engage with the displaced peoples about their experiences. The need for more livable housing was the impetus for students’ project development. The result was Torch Tile — an adaptable, low-cost, user-friendly solution to the sheltering challenges of the displaced peoples in Moria.

Living Conditions of the Sprawling Moria Refugee Camp

On the eastern coast of the Greek island of Lesvos, is the Moria refugee camp. Moria is the largest refugee camp in Europe. It is the landing pad for the daily stream of refugees fleeing from Afghanistan, Syria and Turkey via a harrowing boat trip across a six-mile stretch of the Mediterranean Sea. The camp was originally designed to shelter 3,000 people. Currently, it is overflowing with over 13,000 refugees.

Tents sprawling the foothills surrounding Moria have constituted as impermanent shelters or “homes” for these refugees. Some asylum-seekers have even established residence with flowers, hand-made tandoori ovens and power cords for hijacking electricity. Despite these additions, the tents are no match for the temperature swings of Greece’s climate. In the summers, heat waves can break 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Winters on the island bring lasting snow from the sea moisture. Asylum-seekers can expect to wait a year before their asylum applications are processed ensuring they will experience both extreme weather conditions.

In the past, asylum-seekers have employed cardboard and tarps in an attempt to block out the extreme cold and heat. Increasing the temperature a few degrees led to refugees living in environments with dank, humid air that condenses on the tent inner walls. Running water is only available inside of Moria, and these moist environments put asylum-seekers at risk for health complications. Many suffer from pneumonia and heat stroke, which there are limited resources with which to treat.

In stepped the Torch Tile.

The Product

After over thirty different prototypes and dozens of hours of overnight testing, the team created the Torch Tile. The users’ needs were at the forefront of the creation’s design. The product comes in 36 or 55 sq. ft. sheets that can be laid side-by-side (like tiles) to fully surround a tent. The sturdy, lightweight and flexible material of the tiles is Aluminet.

The knitted screen-like material allows for airflow, reduces indoor humidity and lets light into the tent for visibility. Secured using zip ties and draped over the tent ceiling, the Torch Tile cools the interior by deflecting outdoor heat and light on warm days. Similarly, in winter weather one layers a tarp over the Torch Tile to warm the tent by 5-15 degrees by reflecting body heat inward.

Then, the team founded Torch Global Inc., a nonprofit currently fundraising to mass produce tiles for distribution. The goal is to provide tiles for those in Moria and for the unsheltered populations in Los Angeles.

Protecting Homes during the Coronavirus Pandemic

The distribution of Torch Tiles has been paramount to enabling people to self-isolate during the coronavirus pandemic. One Torch Tile user from Los Angeles shared, “I have COVID and can’t isolate because my tent is too hot. This product will keep my tent cooler, so I can actually stay inside and isolate.” Recently Torch Global Inc. fundraised $13,000 for the ordering of 1,500 more Torch Tiles — protection for 1,500 more people in their homes.

The collective, global mobilization and coordination of resources necessary to resolve the refugee crisis in Greece is unlikely to occur soon enough. Even when it is, situations and conflicts will likely displace more people in the future, and asylum-seekers living in tents will be inevitable. By thermo-regulating shelters, Torch Tiles alleviate one aspect of refugees’ vulnerability and address the downstream effects of displacement.

Tricia Lim Castro
Photo: Flickr