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City of Cape Town's approach to homeless people is not...

South Africa


City of Cape Town’s approach to homeless people is not working

A study last year found 14,000 people living on the streets of Cape Town. There are only 2,500 beds in shelters. (Archive photo: Masixole Feni)

This simplistic narrative of helping to reduce homelessness by just donating to one group of shelters is harmful.

First published by GroundUp

Almost everybody seems to have an opinion about homelessness in Cape Town with roughly 14,000 people sleeping on the city’s streets and in its night shelters. These figures are from The Costs of Homelessness study which was before the full effect of the pandemic was felt. Yet there were only about 2,500 shelter beds in Cape Town. The difference between these two numbers explains the enormity and nature of the problem.

There are therefore at least 10,000 more homeless people than there are shelter beds and this discrepancy is growing. This means that even if temporary accommodation in a night shelter was a perfect solution to homelessness (which it is not for a host of reasons) there would still be thousands of people who fall outside the existing shelter model.

The City of Cape Town frames the problem in a way that ignores these startling figures. Its oft-repeated party line is: “If you wish to support a street person, donate to a registered homeless shelter” and “We want you to reconsider your relationship with Cape Town’s street people community and join the drive to ‘Give Dignity’”. Both quotes are from the City’s website.

If you then follow the hyperlink to the “Give Dignity” page, you see: “Making a donation to a worthy cause is as simple as scanning the SnapScan QR code below with your cell phone”. When you scan the QR code (next to which you will find the words: “In the right hands your donation goes further”), you are taken to the SnapScan fundraising page of The Haven Night Shelter Campaign.

The City of Cape Town’s message to the people of Cape Town who are concerned about the plight of homeless people is that the way to “give dignity” or “support a street person”, is to put your money in “the right hands” — The Haven Night Shelter.

This simplistic narrative of helping to reduce homelessness by just donating to one group of shelters is harmful. What about the thousands who cannot be accommodated by The Haven Night Shelter? The City’s position leads the public to believe that there are enough shelter beds to accommodate all of the people without homes and that the only reason people live on the streets is that they choose not to go to a shelter. It gives credence to those who want homeless people removed from their suburbs and streets.

The problem is simply shifted onto the shoulders of homeless people.

It is patently obvious to anyone who drives through the streets of Cape Town that whatever it is that the City is currently doing to address the issue of homelessness is simply not working.

Firstly, we should not accept that the shelter model is the ideal solution. The current model is based on strict paternalistic rules and regulations with punitive consequences for failure to adhere. This does not allow shelter residents agency over their lives as they work towards self-sufficiency. It is a top-down model rather than one in which homeless people are given space to self-organise.

Secondly, we need to shift our focus to helping those people for whom there are no shelter beds while putting pressure on the City to rethink the current shelter model. In the short term, we must help people still living on the streets and those in the shelter system to access developmental services aimed to help them improve their lives.

There are several organisations already doing this: Streetscapes, U-Turn Homeless Ministries, Souper Troopers and The Humanity Hub, to name but a few. Each of these organisations provides services and runs programmes to help homeless people take the steps they need to get their lives back on track. They work with each person as an individual and tailor the support to match their needs.

Homeless people trust these organisations to walk this difficult journey with them precisely because they are independent of municipal structures and ratepayers and business organisations, which of necessity have a different mandate.

While we wait for the City to rectify the current shelter model, support these and similar organisations and convince your friends, neighbours, family, colleagues, WhatsApp groups and Facebook friends to do the same. Follow them on social media, visit their websites, contact them to find out about their models and programmes and how you can help. The more support they get, the more people they will be able to reach. It’s that simple. DM

Caryn Gootkin is a wordsmith and fundraiser for Souper Troopers NPO.

Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.



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All Comments 2

  • I would rather pay 1000 rand towards a Flammenwerfer based solution than give a single cent to encourage the continued existence and inevitable progression of urban blight.

  • It is discouraging to hear and read of this sorry subject being bounced about, Souper Trouper and like minded, to city, province, federal, everybody is blaming and finger pointing, court cases, acuusations and so it goes on and on. Very little gets done and nobody seems to be able to deal with this hot potatoe sensibly. I wish all parties would actually get together to find suitable, long term solutions to get a handle on homelessness, vagrancy and drug abuse. These poor people bear the brunt of our inability to get things done.

    The city is increasingly looking scruffy, dirty and camps/shelters are popping up everywhere. Rubbish, litter strewed all over the place are an eye sore and if we cannot deal with the core problem then at least we must have troupes to clean up, day after day. Consquently, security becomes and issue as people no longer feel safe walking the street, I took guests to a restaurant in Kloof Street and was aggressively accosted by vagrant, to a point of actual endangerment.

    The Mother city is a tourism destination and we are about to get ready to receive overseas visitors again. If they see and experience Cape Town like this they will think twice to recommend or even come back. It is an absolute imperative that we get out of our disaster situation, often used as an excuse, clean up our city and jointly tackle the social issues previously mentioned.

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