Seeing and caring for the homeless


Homelessness is a worldwide problem, not unique to Cape Town or South Africa. Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana reflects on why we can’t simply ignore it and what each of us can do, in her fortnightly Cape Times column this week.

Going into Cape Town’s festive season, it’s always good to remember that at heart this is a time of giving, compassion and care. As Mahatma Ghandi famously wrote: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

So today I am writing about a very serious matter: the people who share the streets with us but who, unlike most of us, call the street home due to circumstances well beyond their control. Most of us find it too uncomfortable to even make eye contact with them, thus they remain unseen.

Some compassion please

Just how invisible these people are was recently captured by advertising agency MC Saatchi Abel, which collaborated with The Haven Night Shelter to follow a homeless man asking for money on Cape Town streets for four hours. The edited video is devastating in showing just how dehumanising an existence it is with most  Capetonians completely ignoring him, not even acknowledging his presence.


I can assure you that for the person living on the street to have come to that, things must have gotten worse than many of us can even imagine. Some people think that being homeless and living on the streets is an easy choice or because of laziness; this is the height of reckless insensitivity in my opinion.

There are always stories of extreme human duress and survival for all of our communities’ weakest members, and we should not judge another person’s current predicament based on our own privileges. What’s more, homelessness is a chronic societal condition that exists in most developed and emerging countries.

A worldwide problem

San Francisco, for instance, has one of the biggest problems with homelessness and the issue has been a municipal priority for over 30 years. In the past 10 years or so, they’ve finally started to see a turnaround thanks to the progressive legislation of mayor Gavin Newsom, and pioneering work of Bevan Dufty. Dufty is the director of the city’s Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement, or better known as HOPE – in fact, the first thing he did was change the name of the department to something uplifting.

When I visited San Francisco, I was lucky enough to meet Dufty and be introduced to some of his projects and ideas first-hand. A lot of them are experimental and raise controversy, but the results are impressive. For instance, aggressive beggars were given guide dogs that would otherwise have been put down, and by caring for an animal it was found that their aggression was tempered and self-worth improved. Dufty has also long promoted wet houses – or pre-treatment shelter – where addicts are served lower quantities of high-quality alcohol until they can make their own decision about freeing themselves from the addiction.


The first step

One of the things that particularly stood out for me at the time is that we can’t run away from providing shelter as the primary strategic intervention – whether emergency, temporary, mid-term or permanent shelter. Because to be able to talk to someone, they need to be housed properly and feel safe. You can’t talk to them under the bridge and expect them to make clear decisions about their life when they are worried about basic needs such as shelter for the night.

When I compare this to South African cities, I wonder if there is a gap that we are missing? For instance, if you’re a Grade 1 teacher, you assume that the children you are getting in class have already been prepared to start the education process – they’ve been taught what school is about and why they need to go to school. These are valid assumptions based on the fact that someone else has done the preparatory work.

Generally in our cities, due to scarce resources and overworked social workers this step is often missed. This means that we end up making assumptions that the individuals are ready to get off the street,  have a shelter,  make decisions about their lives and find a job, in order to be a functioning member of society. These assumptions, fail to take into consideration the readiness of the individual and his or her circumstances to be empowered to make the change.

More resources, more collaboration

It is my view that every support programme must start with trust building and listening attentively, empathising and understanding the situation and then  deploying resources efficiently. The reality is however that the existing resources, both public and private, are limited and often too stretched to cope. There is an urgent need for more shelter – temporary and permanent – as well as assessment centres, social workers and other therapies.

A vast majority of our homeless are also severely sick with Aids, TB or a mental ailment, and this does not even start to tackle the thorny subject of addiction. Seldom do they manage to get access to basic help from the day hospitals, and even if they did, would not be able to take medication without regular meals.

And so we find these vulnerable and destitute people on our street, in the stark reality of an overstretched  and inadequate social programme to deal with the problem. Oftentimes law enforcement becomes the fall back position. The law enforcement officers themselves are often overextended with crime and not necessarily equipped to deal with this issue. This can only result in the problem being more complicated, not solved, and often the violent disruption only makes the homeless person that much less trusting of any help offered.

What any city needs is a consolidated strategic collaboration between NGOs, civic society, the public sector and the private sector. This is probably Dufty’s real genius: how, through his HOPE department, he has facilitated a coordinated strategic approach across the metro, the state, law enforcement, social development, health services, child protection services and the court.

This is a very complex problem, as anyone involved in the sector will tell you. Nonetheless, we are all blessed with compassion and an extraordinary capacity to give as Capetonians. Any call to give responsibly is always met with an astounding response. So I urge us to remember this festive season that homeless people are members of our communities, and deserve the same amount of respect, empathy and generosity as everyone else.

Let’s get creative

Creative interventions can often make it easier for citizens to engage. One of my favourite examples is an idea that originated right here in Cape Town and has now gone global – The Street Store. A pop-up clothes shop that collects wares from the community and gives it to the homeless, the concept is open source and anyone can host one.


Around the world there are also incredible stories everyday. In New York there is a hair stylist who gives homeless people haircuts, and in Brisbane, two friends have turned a van into a mobile laundry. In Barcelona, designers are working with the homeless to turn their handwriting into fonts that can earn royalties, and in London and a number of other European cities, homeless social enterprises are offering unique walking tours. In San Francisco, a bus has been retrofitted to have showers for the homeless.

Giving money is also an option and it is a personal decision as to whether you like to give personally or through an organisation. Greg Andrews, operations manager of the Service Dining Rooms and convener of the Street People’s Forum in Cape Town, unpacks the decision thoroughly in this article: Should you give to people on the street?

There are a number of shelters in Cape Town that you can support directly or through the City of Cape Town and the Central City Improvement District’s Give Responsibly campaign. There is also the Safety Lab’s Giva, a new website that allows you to give directly to individuals who are in shelters and have a specific need – e.g. a bicycle, a sewing machine, a computer, a bus ticket – that will help them kick-start their lives again. In particular, follow the story of Nceba who is training to become a tour guide.


If you have a business in the CBD, you can support the Trashback recycling enterprise by arranging for your recyclables to be collected by one of their participants. Trashback grew out of a community project that incentivised the collection of recyclable garbage, offering a very non-committal way for homeless people to start earning money or other rewards such as clothes and food. As they earn more and deliver more regularly, they are given more responsibility – such as servicing businesses in the CBD.

We have shared these projects on our website and encourage you to do the same. Do also share what you are doing, or any ideas you have for others, on Twitter @CTpartnership #wecare

Perhaps these feel like small interventions, but we are well past the age of silver bullet solutions. There is no one cure-all for the worldwide problem of homelessness, but every little way in which we can acknowledge them as human beings and recognise our shared humanity helps.


Homelessness organisations to support

Shelters for adults
The Haven Night Shelter
The Pride Shelter

Homes for children
Ons Plek
Beth Uriel
The Homestead

Beautiful Gate
City Mission
Salesian Institute Youth Projects


This article first appeared in the Cape Times newspaper on 26 November 2014. Bulelwa writes a fortnightly column in the Cape Times:

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