Above: The government’s Unregulated Structures Task force on the ground in North Eleuthera, during the week of May 6th, 2024.
Above: The government’s Unregulated Structures Task force on the ground in North Eleuthera, during the week of May 6th, 2024.

Demolition of unregulated structures within the community of Blackwood in North Eleuthera began on Tuesday, May 7th, 2024, with more than fifty structures destroyed on the first day, and demolition work continuing within that community on Wednesday, and Thursday.

This action in early May followed a visit to Eleuthera by the Unregulated Community Taskforce, led by Minister of Works, Clay Sweeting, during the week of March 18th, which saw the taskforce team assess and investigate unregulated structures throughout the island, including in Spanish Wells/Russell Island, Blackwood, Palmetto Point, Rock Sound and Green Castle. 28-day notices of demolition, during the March visit, were posted on several hundred unregulated structures on the island.

In a brief interview on the Wednesday – day two of demolition activities, Police Superintendent Stephen Carey out of New Providence, with resposibility for the taskforce, explained, “On Tuesday, May 7th, a team of police officers led by myself, along with Defence Force and Immigration – went into Blackwood, accompanied by Ministry of Works and Social Services personnel – where a total of 52 structures were demolished. We are presently in Blackwood for the completion of the demolition.”  Officer Carey said that one undocumented person was also arrested on Tuesday and transferred into New Providence, and added, “Today, Immigration will be doing their checks, and we will continue with the same security protocol as we did yesterday. Thus far, there were no incidents in Blackwood to this point.”

Craig Delancy, Building Controls Officer with the Ministry of Works, detailing the scope of demolition said, “On Tuesday we started the demolition process in Blackwood, and we were able to demolish approximately 52 structures, consisting of housing units, storage sheds and a commercial store. We are continuing the demolition today (Wednesday, May 8th), and we hope to get through at least another fifty plus structures today, depending on the operator, equipment, and not having any mechanical issues.”

About the overall progress of the demolition works, he described, “I would say that we are about 30% completed from yesterday’s activities, and we hope that we can get a bit more done today than yesterday. Because we are starting a little bit earlier – and we have identified all of the structures that did not have a building permit.”

“The criteria for identifying unregulated structures,” continued Delancy, “is that the owner or the occupant has to show that they have a valid building permit for their structure. From our research and from our previous visit, many of the structures were not permitted and that is one of the reasons why we are dealing with them – because they are also a fire hazard. Some of the structures are too close to each other. Some are not built to the minimum code standards. So, we want to ensure that all construction throughout The Bahamas is being done under the [stipulations of the] Building Regulation Act.”

By Thursday evening, May 9th, the Ministry of Works confirmed that a total of 204 unregulated structures had been demolished in the Blackwood community, with further plans to continue demolition activity on Monday, May 13th on Russell Island. Officer Delancy later informed that a number of the unregulated structures on Russell Island had been vacated, but demolition activities were incomplete. The taskforce returned to New Providence during the week of May 13th, with plans to go back to Russell Island to complete demolitions.

Members of the Department of Social Services were also on hand during the demolition activity. Nickal Symonette – Chief Welfare Officer for Eleuthera, shared that after canvassing the areas of the shanty towns and informing people about what the department’s assistance can do for them, following the taskforce posting of demolition notices in March, the response had been underwhelming. “We have had minimal persons applying for assistance, and right now on record, we would have had one person make application for rent assistance.”

When asked about the issue of homelessness of the displaced families, Officer Symonette shared, “…Basically, those persons who are being displaced are either living with family members or persons who would have had homes that are going to stay right here on property in Blackwood. But one of the things that need to be noted is that the North Eleuthera district, does not have many places or facilities for rental – so they would actually have to go outside of the district to apply for some type or form of rental assistance.”

Two days following the demolition activity in Blackwood, on Saturday, May 12th, a twenty-eight year-old resident of Blackwood, who shared that he had grown up in Eleuthera, and returned to the island a number of years ago after spending time living in New Providence, commenting on how the destruction had affected the community, said, “Most of the people living here had no place to go. There was no providence, and kids are out of the schools. People are sleeping in tents… We have babies out here, and kids out here. It’s bad.” He continued, acknowledging the illegality of the building structures, saying, “At the same time, we have got to face through it. We know we were wrong, and have got to accept that.”

On people’s immediate living situations with former homes flattened, he informed, “Some people, if you know somebody, and they are kind enough, you go… A guy who was providing some tents for people who don’t have a place to go – police stopped him – a U.S. pastor who preached in Blackwood before. At the end of the day, you know it’s wrong and you have to accept it… But, we still have people with no place to go… Police are telling us we cannot stay in Blackwood.” When asked about where those people were at that time, he said, “Around, walking around still – they have no where to go.”

Displaced residents of Blackwood sheltering in temporary tent facilities.
Displaced residents of Blackwood sheltering in temporary tent facilities.

Further issues highlighted were of some demolished areas being looted, displaced residents coming to terms with loss of possessions – crushed under the rubble, and with kitchens destroyed in the demolition – the immediate need for people accessing the ability to prepare food.

When asked his opinion about where the community goes from here, he commented, “There ain’t no coming through. The only way you can come through right now is if you are working in Spanish Wells, and the person in Spanish Wells allow you to do it [build], and you do it with a plan, by law. People don’t mind. But not everybody is working in Spanish Wells.”

In addition to a lack of rental unit capacity in the North Eleuthera area to absorb the newly displaced population from within the Blackwood community, anecdotal accounts describe former residents of Blackwood (with permits, Bahamian residency or passport status) being turned away by potential landlords once they learn they are from the Blackwood community.

Some local Eleutherans expressed that despite the 28-day demolition notices, the expectation that Haitian residents affected by the demolition would be able to find appropriate alternative living accommodations within that time, was an unreasonable one. “Losing your home and your possessions in a forceful way like that is very challenging. Not only for you in that moment, physically, but also mentally… These people are human beings with journeys and stories, and they have to be treated in a humane way, and not cast out like wild animals,” said one North Eleutheran.

Piles of rubble from demolished structures on fire in North Eleuthera.
Piles of rubble from demolished structures on fire in North Eleuthera.

Another local, commenting on both sides of the coin, opined, “The Bahamian citizen will be held over the fire and harassed to no end when it comes to enforcing the various laws as it pertains to building and residency and getting your power (electricity) and this and that. So, on that end, I believe fully that the law must be applied – if it is going to be applied fairly and across the board with no exceptions. The simple little chicken coop you want to put in your yard, you are being harassed by this one and that one about having a permit. So, we cannot allow foreigners to do as they please.”

They continued, “On the flip side of that, where you have allowed a situation to mushroom, and that should have been dealt with a long time ago – For the sake of being humane and preserving dignity – I agree that some path should be made for those who are here legally in the country. Those here illegally need to be sent back home, and helped at home where they have status. Those who are living legally in the country, there should be some path to securing some housing so dignity and humanity is preserved.”