CH&PA begins demolition to remove squatters from Sophia reserves

Agatha Valentine’s daughter and grandchildren stand guard over their bridge, part of which they dismantled to save their home from being torn down. (Photo by Keno George)

The Central Housing and Planning Authority (CH&PA) yesterday demolished almost two dozen structures on the government reserve in ‘A’ Field, Sophia, during an exercise that was brought to a premature end after a confrontation with squatters, some of whom claimed they had not received any notice to move.

The demolition exercise is to target structures that were illegally built on the government reserves in ‘A’  Field and ‘B’  Field, in preparation for the execution of community development works under the US$30 million ‘Road Network Upgrade and Expansion Programme.’

At around 8 am, the CH&PA demolition team,  along with staff from the sister agencies and police began the exercise. While it got off to a smooth start, the team was met with resistance as it proceeded to the southern end of ‘A’ Field. One family formed a human barricade and even dismantled part of their bridge to prevent the team from accessing their home. A few others wept and begged for their homes not to be torn down.

Despite steady verbal assaults, the team continued with its work. How-ever, due to the resistance from residents, who were unwilling to comply and were getting aggressive, the exercise was eventually halted.

Some 1,200 persons are estimated to be illegally occupying the reserves.

In a statement issued yesterday afternoon, the CH&PA said it demolished 21 structures during the exercise, which was conducted together with the Public Infrastructure Ministry, Guyana Power and Light Inc, Guyana Water Inc, and the Guyana Lands and Surveys Com-mission, with help from the Guyana Police Force.

It reported that the demolished structures included some which were abandoned, some recently constructed, and some which were now under construction. In one instance, it noted, the owner of one of the structures was the owner of a house lot.

While some residents said they had received notices and some said they had not, the CH&PA statement noted that last week Thursday, the agency along with members of the Anti-Squatting Task Force of Constituencies 5 and 6 hand-delivered notices to persons who had  illegally constructed on the reserves, despite being forewarned.

It also said that the exercise was planned after extensive consultation with sister agencies and community representatives. “It must be noted that prior to today’s exercise, persons who were in receipt of notices which were served on Thursday last, visited the agency seeking an extension of time. The Agency was lenient and extensions were granted. On the ground today also, extensions were granted to some squatters who requested,” it explained.

The CH&PA, while noting that it intensified its Anti-Squatting Campaign in the last five months, said squatters who never applied for Government Housing Solutions were invited to lodge applications. In addition to these initiatives, it noted that several billboards warning against squatting were erected in areas where squatting is widespread, while meetings were held with community leaders and notices issued to squatters living on the reserves.

Further, the statement added that the issue was addressed again during public consultations held throughout the Liliendaal to Cummings Park area on the reformulation of the ‘Road Network Upgrade and Expansion Pro-gramme.’

 

‘Removal a must’

Clayton Hinds, a Sophia resident and a member of the task force set up by the CH&PA to address squatting in the community, explained that the removal of squatters is necessary since it is a requirement before the upgrading of infrastructure in the community can take place. Hinds said that yesterday’s activity was the first of a series of demolition exercises that will be conducted over the next few months to remove squatters. “Only recently, the government has taken a position to try to lift the standards of life that is being experienced by those persons living on the dams…,” he stated. “They [squatters] need to be cognisant of the approach taken by the government to improve their quality of life in this area, hence their removal is a must,” he added.

Like the CH&PA, Hinds also noted that notices were served in advance of the exercise undertaken yesterday.

While stating that the number of persons illegally occupying the reserves appeared to be increasing, Hinds said the situation needs to be addressed and cannot be encouraged. “If the state is going to be spending this volume of money to improve people’s lives, then you cannot have squatting… we need to remove the squatters,” he maintained.

But many residents who showed up to witness the demolition also criticised the government for the action as well as the members of the demolition team as they executed their duties. Some begged for some of the structures not to be broken down or removed. “Give them time,” was a common refrain, albeit peppered with expletives, of residents, who followed the demolition crew.

One resident suggested to those who lost their homes to turn up at the headquarters of the People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR) at Congress Place, Sophia. “Mek tents and sleep deh because [PNCR leader and President David] Granger send them. He tek we vote and send them to bruk down we lil house,” the resident said.

Agatha Valentine, whose daughter and grandchildren formed a human barricade in front of their home, said it was only a year ago that they constructed their shack to provide a shelter for a dozen persons, comprising five adults and seven children.

Valentine told reporters that her daughter had been trying to get a piece of land to house her family since 1997. “It is a case where they have to find somewhere to live… give people [a] chance to live. They are young and making children and they have to get place to live,” said Valentine.  Valentine’s granddaughter, who is pregnant with her second child, tearfully said that they had no alternative housing. “If they break this down, we have nowhere else to go… they give us a notice to move by the 16th [of October] but we have nowhere to go… this is the first time we get a notice,” she said.

Another squatter, Fitzroy Blair, who shed tears as he pleaded with Lord, asked for two days to move. The man’s son, Lorenzo Blair, said they had to resort to squatting since their landlord raised their rent and they were unable to pay it. The son explained that he has been unable to work after breaking a foot in a motorcycle accident four months ago. “I can’t work to help with the rent. They didn’t give us a notice,” he said, while noting that he, his daughter and his parents lived in the house. “We lived in Berbice. I don’t know if we would have to return there…,” he responded, when asked what they would do.

The Valentine and Blair homes were eventually spared.

Squatters whose home were not demolished yesterday were told that they have 28 days to evacuate the reserve or the CH&PA will proceed to tear down their structures.

 

‘There is nothing!’

Father of three Stephan Forde was not as fortunate as his pleas did not save his home. Forde, who is a mason, said the little shack provided shelter to his three children. “They gone to school. When they come from school, what they would come to? There is nothing!” he said, pleading with the crew. “Ow, y’all stop na! This is for me and my children. Is three years now I am living here. I don’t have a land to build on. Ow, y’all stop na!” he continued to plead as the workers tore his house down.

A shop owner told reporters that she did not receive any notice, though she admitted to knowing that there had been plans to tear down illegal properties on the reserve. “Here we are operating for 20 something year and it is unfair to us to move without a notice. When we came out, people show us the notice they got, we didn’t get any and I was hoping we would have gotten one this week but nothing,” Olive Ghanie, the owner of a small shop on the reserve, said.

The woman was annoyed that she could not get materials to rebuild in front of her home. “I made stuff to sell this morning and to know we are coming and meeting with something like this this morning is very hard…,” she said. “We know this is government reserve but before this government try to take us under city council, this is what they come and do here, try to take bread out of people’s mouth and cannot offer people biscuits,” Ghanie added.

Kenneth Ray, the owner of a mechanic shop that was demolished, was willing to comply when the crew showed up. He admitted to receiving a notice that his property would be demolished if he remained on the reserves. Ray said that he was making the necessary arrangements to move his business but the canter did not show up to remove his property.

Meanwhile, some residents did express gratitude to the CH&PA for the removal of the illegal structures since they believe it would also rid the community of criminal hubs. Throughout the exercise, GPL workers were seen recovering electrical wires from homes and on the ground. At intervals, they had to disconnect the illegal connections directly from the power lines.

The CH&PA said that yesterday’s exercise was the second of its kind conducted by the agency within the last year. It noted that it was forced to abandon an exercise on October 28th, 2016, after squatters became aggressive towards staff and law enforcement officers. During that exercise, the windscreen of a vehicle belonging to the agency was destroyed.

“It is important for persons occupying government reserves to understand that they are preventing agencies from executing critical drainage and other developmental works in communities,” CH&PA added.

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