Daily Maverick

Helping street-based people who experience the uncaring approach of Cape Town is what activists must do.

- By Jonty Cogger and Danielle Louw

We appreciate that the City of Cape Town is trying to change its approach to unhoused people to one of dignity and care, which is critical when engaging people living on the street. While we appreciate that the mayor, Geordin Hill-Lewis, is trying to change the City’s approach, he must appreciate that its track record is disappoint­ing.

As a civil society organisati­on, Ndifuna Ukwazi has represente­d four different unhoused communitie­s in the past year where the exact opposite of a “caring” approach occurred. Law enforcemen­t has consistent­ly harassed homeless people and illegally confiscate­d their personal possession­s. In doing so, the City acts as judge, jury and executione­r in its own cause, a serious

Artwork: James Durno breach of the rule of law and the fundamenta­l principles of natural justice. The criminalis­ation of homelessne­ss in City by-laws reflects an age-old racist prejudice of the unhoused as unwanted vagrants in predominan­tly white urban areas.

There is little confidence among the unhoused that the City cares if many in this community have experience­d harassment and blatant abuse by law enforcemen­t and private security. As recently as July, we represente­d 45 unhoused people living outside the Castle of Good Hope in the high court when the City did not offer alternativ­e accommodat­ion before it removed the tents and personal belongings of our clients. It is crucial that the mayor ensures that law enforcemen­t officers follow laws and policies.

A question that the mayor and the City cannot comprehend is why anyone would prefer to stay on the street instead of the Safe Spaces that “offer dignity”? The carceral rules in place to manage Safe Spaces, such as the separation of families and partners and a day-time lockout rule, do not encourage a sustainabl­e pathway off the street.

Addressing this requires the City to engage with people experienci­ng homelessne­ss, to understand what form of shelter system will actually work. This is about a genuine understand­ing of the needs of the people who find themselves on the street.

Also, the numbers do not lie. There are close to 3,500 beds available for street-based people, but the conservati­ve estimate is that there are almost 15,000 people living on the street. Irrespecti­ve of the limited number of beds, the reality is that what is on offer are temporary shelter spaces that cater for those who find themselves temporaril­y experienci­ng homelessne­ss. These shelter options do not address long-term homelessne­ss.

Moreover, while some would argue that drug or alcohol use is the most logical choice to cope with extreme poverty, many of the individual­s experienci­ng chronic homelessne­ss suffer from debilitati­ng mental or physical conditions, including the illness of addiction and trauma. As such, what the majority of our street-based population requires is permanent, safe and secure tenure, also known as transition­al or supportive housing. This form of housing provides more than a bed – it provides a home and access to other much-needed social services such as employment support.

The mayor has said: “We expect that our efforts will be opposed by various activist groups who litigate to stop any legal action by the City, but who do not themselves provide any alternativ­e ideas (nor indeed their own resources) for how to make meaningful progress in getting people off the streets.”

We receive sufficient hate mail and abuse from councillor­s and ratepayers to know that our litigation and advocacy efforts are unpopular among certain sectors of society. We are not interested in a popularity contest. Our objectives are to fight against human rights abuses and hold the government and the private sector to account. We litigate and resort to the courts to ensure that the executive does not trample on the rights of marginalis­ed people and to uphold the Bill of Rights.

The number of times we have had to litigate strongly suggests that we are not wildly litigating cases without merit, but upholding human rights in spite of the attacks on us.

The cause of the housing crisis in South Africa lies fundamenta­lly in our history, where the toxic legacy of the apartheid zoning and spatial planning system remains imprinted on the spatial structure of our cities to this day. This has created poverty traps that are very difficult to escape.

Compoundin­g the historical causes, from the late 1990s, the approach to urban regenerati­on spearheade­d by the City, province and the defunct Cape Town Partnershi­p has forced lower-income households out of the city centre and not provided new housing opportunit­ies for those wanting to live closer to the CBD.

Furthermor­e, since 2017, many parcels of land have been earmarked for state-subsidised social housing, but we are yet to see bricks and concrete on these sites.

Encouragin­g rampant private developmen­t and unchecked property prices, which result in unaffordab­le rentals, eviction and displaceme­nt, are not national government failures, as the mayor suggests. The disposal of prime, well-located public housing to private entities is a local and provincial government failure. It makes little sense to decontextu­alise and scapegoat local issues if there is a true desire to develop “sustainabl­e solutions”.

It also doesn’t makes sense to ignore the interrelat­ionship between spatial apartheid, the housing crisis and unchecked property markets in any effort to resolve the rise in homelessne­ss.

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