Improving the lives of Cape Town’s homeless people will also improve the life of the city itself, writes Andrew Fleming.
Cape Town joined cities across the globe on 10 October 2011 in commemorating World Homeless Day, an initiative designed to raise awareness around the needs of homeless people – and how members of the public can help in more effective ways. Taking part demands that we take a closer look at ways in which homeless people are incorporated and treated within the city itself.
Cape Town’s homeless population is by-and-large a socially and economically marginalised community. Understandably, many activities that stem from chronic homelessness are problematic for the city at large: Aggressive begging, vandalism, and violence all serve to affect the quality of life for all urban users, including the homeless. In making the city a safer space for all users, curbing these activities must be pursued within a larger strategy to transform the city into a safe and caring space for all who use it.
Out of sight and out of mind
What remains troubling, however, is the idea that addressing these problems necessarily involves removing and relocating our city’s homeless population away from the city’s streets – out of sight and out of mind. Monetary fines and arrests for minor “public nuisances” are frequent, and the physical displacement of the homeless through arrest unjustly condemns them to disproportionate social criticism – as “unwanted citizens” – failing to take into account longer-term, more productive solutions.
The act of displacement reinforces social marginalisation and exclusion without even solving the problem the intervention looks to address: Faced with no other alternative, those removed from the city centre frequently return, congregating in the very spaces of consumption and production that attract some of the city’s highest.
We seem all too ready to brush aside any attempts to understand how people came to live on the streets in the first place: Understanding this would help us realise that homelessness is often not the fault of the homeless themselves, but rather a function of their social circumstance.
What Cape Town needs is not an exclusionary approach, but rather a shift in mind-set towards a notion of social inclusion – and a corresponding plan of action. An inclusive approach is based on the premise that the homeless have as much right to the city’s streets and public spaces as any other member of society. And an acceptance that homelessness is a reality in cities all over the globe – and will remain a reality – is not tantamount to an endorsement of the begging, violence, substance abuse and aggression that can accompany it. Homelessness is not something to eliminate, but to mitigate. Providing appropriate resources and services has proven far more effective at reducing the negative aspects of homelessness, while opening up pathways for those currently on the streets.
The City of Cape Town, headed by Executive Mayor Patricia de Lille, has firmly committed to productively assisting the city’s homeless population: In her 1 June 2011 inaugural speech, De Lille emphasised that the homeless would be one of the primary groups to benefit from the City’s focus on building a caring and inclusive city. Her 2011/12 budget set aside an additional R2-million for homeless issues and R300-million to put towards the department of economic and social development to help transform the city into a more inclusive space through caring and compassionate initiatives aimed at the homeless population. Through such channels, long-term creative and practical solutions to assist the homeless and include them in the City’s larger activity should be actively endorsed and pursued.
How can we help homeless families?
Accommodation facilities such as the Haven organisations are vital in providing shelter to those on the streets. They fulfil a pressing need. Providing one bed or mattress per person, however, does not necessarily offer a productive solution for everyone: Homelessness affects not only adults, but also whole families, children, and those with pets. These family relationships provide much-needed comfort to those whose day-to-day existence is otherwise one of marginalisation, loneliness and depression. All too often, overnight shelters and other sources of accommodation cannot or do not cater for families, couples, or people with pets, or provide sufficient levels of emotional and structural support for residents. When faced with the possibility of having to break emotional networks of support or family structures, many would rather choose to remain on the streets. The expansion and diversification of accommodation facilities for the homeless would be a great starting point for Cape Town to begin exploring new options to assist the homeless.
Drug addiction, a coping mechanism often only formed after resorting to begging or as a response to long-term patterns of abuse, runs deep in the homeless community in Cape Town. Making it more difficult for people to obtain drugs is certainly a start, but is not a long-term solution: Effective rehabilitation centres with economic coaching opportunities and shelters that provide a safe and supervised environment for addicts can help put an end to drug dependence while assisting the individual to develop a more positive role within society.
We should also consider the most vulnerable on the streets, particularly children and the disabled. Returning children to their families can mean forcing a return to abuse, violence and neglect. Providing safe, secure, and individually-tailored housing solutions for homeless children, particularly those with substance addiction challenges, will not only ensure that they are protected from dangerous family environments, but will also give them a chance to develop in a safe environment. Physically and mentally disabled people automatically qualify for social grants, yet frequently have no way of accessing them due to a misunderstanding of the process or an inability to secure an official assessment. Facilitating this process through stronger and more compassionate interventions will provide access for a greater number of disabled people to those grants to which they are legally entitled.
Greater attention to the more basic matters of urban infrastructure will further improve the lives of the homeless in Cape Town. Simply expanding the availability of public toilets within the city will go a long way toward addressing public defecation, helping make our city cleaner and safer in a more inclusive manner.
Design solutions to help homelessness
Cape Town is a strong contender for the title of World Design Capital 2014 – and the creative communities can and should play a role in designing innovative solutions to the problems faced by the city’s homeless on a daily basis – such as violence, theft, and having to sleep exposed to the elements. For inspiration, look to Melbourne-based architect Sean Godsell’s park bench and bus shelter houses that provide safe and effective urban sleeping environments for Australia’s homeless. It is time for Cape Town to tap into its own creativity to design solutions that can transform lives – specifically those of the homeless.
The issues surrounding homelessness are certainly complex: One large-scale solution simply does not exist. Bettering the lives of the homeless will require a more resilient and long-term intervention from the City and Province coupled with more understanding of the issues confronting the city’s homeless by Capetonians themselves. The success seen on Los Angeles’ infamous Skid Row demonstrates the potential in a coordinated response led by NGOs, city government, and the homeless to make long-lasting and integrated improvements. Citizens can also play their part, donating their time and money to the organisations that are trying to offer sustainable solutions for the homeless, rather than giving money directly to those on the streets – guilty hand-outs often incentivise people to stay on the streets.
With multiple parties pursuing productive and coordinated strategies designed to better the day-to-day conditions of those on the streets and provide positive ways through which the homeless can improve their own lives, the situation will start to change.
More dignified and inclusive solutions will improve not only the lives of the homeless, but also the life of the city itself.
This article was first published in the Cape Argus newspaper