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Homelessness In The New South Africa

The lot of street people, street children, collectively “the homeless” is a terrible and hard-to-face indictment of the caring, compassionate and human rights oriented ethos of the new dispensation in South Africa. Those living in doorways, under bridges, on pavements and in abandoned buildings have a hard life. The indignity of it all cries out for attention: hungry, dirty, addicted, cold and wet in winter, sometimes involved in prostitution and petty crime, jobless and unskilled – but surviving by picking through the rubbish discarded by the wealthy in the form of left-over food and recyclable items like cardboard, glass and tins. Unloved and unwanted; shunned and ignored, bullied in police raids whenever a “clean-up” is ordered – homelessness is not a soft option as a lifestyle choice.

The statistics revealed in the National Development Plan are not encouraging. There is a backlog of 2,1 million “housing units” that will, in 2012 money, cost R300 billion to address. Many of those on housing waiting lists eke out a living in informal settlements on the fringes of the metropolitan areas of SA. The homeless often find life too hard to bear in these settlements and they get out, preferring to live rough where the money is – in the leafy suburbs and satellite towns around the big cities.

Somerset West boasts a high percentage of millionaire residents. It is a veritable magnet to the homeless: the quality of the rubbish is high, the climate is bearable, except in the depths of winter, and the opportunities for begging are numerous. Dysfunctional household circumstances in informal settlements – an absent mother, an abusive father, a harassing uncle, overcrowding, hunger, joblessness and boredom all conspire to drive the incidence of homelessness and the increase in the number of homeless people wandering the streets of the leafy suburbs seeking to find ways to keep body and soul together.

The living conditions and life views of the homeless of Somerset West and the greater Cape Town area are now the subject of a 45 minute documentary film by John Warner called “Beg to Differ”. All active citizens, in particular those who regard themselves as involved in the “caring city” of Cape Town, ought to make it their business to see the movie in order to gain a better understanding of and insight into the lives of the marginalised who have found it unavoidable to be homeless.

For the past ten years the spiritual and material needs of the homeless of the area have been attended to by the Helderberg Street People’s Centre. It leases premises from the city from which it dispenses food, advice and general succour to the homeless of Somerset West. Now the city has decided not to renew the lease. The area is needed for a new transport hub and the notion of a centre of this kind does not fit in with current policy. The fact that the closure of the facility will leave many of its “regulars” hungry with nowhere to turn for help appears to have passed the policy-makers by. Ratepayers prefer not to have to see and deal with the homeless; removing their lifeline is a way to force them to move on.

It is difficult to square a policy that has this inevitable outcome with the values of the Constitution. Our Bill of Rights requires the state to “respect, protect, promote and fulfil” the rights in it. These include life, dignity, freedom from violence, preservation of bodily and psychological integrity as well as the progressive realisation of access to housing and the section 27 rights to health care, food, water and social security. Placed in the constitutional context of governance that is transparent, accountable and responsive to the needs of ordinary people, it is plain to see that the authorities have no plan and no sustainable policy for addressing the lot of the homeless. Temporary relocation areas on the Cape Flats, the most notorious of which is called “Blikkiesdorp”, are not an attractive option. The soulless lines of corrugated iron and wood huts are not conducive to creating that elusive “better life for all”. The homeless who are living rough in suburbia are not usually recipients of TRA housing. It is used for those involved in re-blocking exercises in informal settlements that are unbearably over-crowded and those whose informal dwellings are destroyed by fire or inundated by flood-waters.

The policy of the city is described as re-integrative. Here is what the city has placed on its website (search under the word “homelessness”):

“The ultimate goal is to reintegrate street people into their communities of origin. However, in cases where this is not possible, clients will be referred to one of the City’s care facility partners. Where clients have an addiction, they will be referred to the City’s rehabilitation centre partners.

‘The City’s approach is to address the issue of homelessness holistically. We believe that all people, irrespective of their circumstances, have dignity and we have great respect for that. We also recognise that homelessness creates difficult situations for residents and businesses alike. We therefore remain committed to dealing with this matter as effectively and humanely as possible,’ said Councillor Cortje-Alcock.”

The problem with this approach is that there is no incentive to or aspiration on the part of the homeless to return to their “communities of origin”. All too often the dysfunction there is what drove them to homelessness in the first place. Why they would want to return to the site of dysfunction, the grinding poverty, joblessness and the bottom end of the scale of inequality is difficult to fathom. It would appear that what the councillor calls the “difficult situations for residents and businesses alike” is at the root of the caring and compassion that informs the policy of the city toward the homeless. A non-racial future is postponed by returning the homeless to their communities of origin because most of them come from informal settlements that are exclusively occupied by the marginalised of the city. In a perverse way the homeless are more upwardly mobile than those they leave behind in their dire communities of origin.

The way the homeless express themselves in the movie gives an insight into their take on the situation in the city and the country that policy-makers would be well-advised to take into account. The consequences of closing (and not re-locating) the Helderberg Street People’s Centre, especially those that are unintended, need to be carefully considered before the closure takes place. The mayor and her councillors should watch the movie, soon.

Paul Hoffman SC
5 March 2014.

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