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Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis wants to shift appro...

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LOCAL GOVERNMENT

Cape Town Mayor Hill-Lewis wants to shift approach on homelessness from law enforcement to care intervention

Geordin Hill-Lewis, Cape Town’s youngest mayor. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

After becoming Cape Town’s youngest mayor in November 2021, Geordin Hill-Lewis said his biggest challenge was to solve homelessness, so he focused on fast-tracking social housing projects.

The issue of homelessness is a much-debated topic the world over. In Cape Town, the City Council has been criticised for its handling of homelessness and dragged to court for its treatment of people living on the streets. 

In January, Dumisani Joxo, who was living on the street in Rondebosch, was allegedly shot dead by a City law enforcement officer. The City’s new Unlawful Occupation bylaw as well as amendments to its Streets, Public Places and Prevention of Noise Nuisances bylaw have been labelled as unconstitutional and anti-poor by activists and opposition parties. 

At 35, Geordin Hill-Lewis became the youngest mayor in Cape Town’s history after the 2021 local elections. He was elected to Parliament at the age of 24, the youngest MP at the time. He served as the Shadow Minister of Finance in Parliament for the DA from 2019-2021. Hill-Lewis began his political career by helping to launch the DA’s first branch at UCT.  

Care intervention programme 

In an interview with Daily Maverick at his office at the Cape Town Civic Centre, Hill-Lewis said he wanted to change the City’s law enforcement approach to one of care and compassion.

“My impression from the outside is that a lot of time has been spent trying to pass the ball from one level of government to the other. Homelessness is one of those issues that is kind of like a perfect storm of social failures, coming together into one set of circumstances. There’s healthcare issues, there’s a lack of adequate mental healthcare treatment in our society, there’s a lack of adequate substance abuse treatment. There’s discrimination that gets shown towards former prisoners. Many of our homeless people in Cape Town are former prisoners. 

“All of these other failures that come from different parts of the state and society end up in this person living on the street in a particular city. The City’s only real core task is one of law enforcement. In the past, the City has always dealt with this [homelessness] through the lens of law enforcement. The results speak for themselves. The issue is just burgeoning. The realisation that I had was that we had to stop passing the ball around.”

Hill-Lewis said he wanted to shift from a law enforcement-driven approach to a care intervention programme. “There are those that say we should support and help facilitate homeless people where they live. That is not our view. We have to help get them off the street. I’ve found it very rewarding; the response has been extremely positive. In many cases, the people who are living on the streets don’t want to be there. They feel desperate, they feel alone. They want to try to put their lives back together again. They’re looking for help.”

One of the main aspects of the care intervention programme was the safe spaces, such as the recently announced expansion of the Culemborg Safe Space. He said the City had added more beds and dedicated spaces where families can stay together.

“That’s how we see the safe-space expansion and the shelter-bed expansion that we are doing in the homelessness space. That is never going to be permanent housing.” 

Social housing 

One of the long-term solutions to homelessness is social housing. In May, the mayor announced in a council meeting that land in Newmarket Street in Woodstock and Pickwick Road in Salt River would be released for social housing. The release of this land should see more than 700 social housing units developed

There will be more announcements soon on social housing projects, he said.

“There’s a huge need in Cape Town for affordable, social housing. There were a whole lot of pieces of land, spoken about in 2017, they have crawled through the process at a snail’s pace. I’ve set up what I call a priority programme to release more of that land for social housing in Cape Town. Some of it must be in the CBD, it’s important, but there’s lots of parts of the city where people need to live and work. There’s Bellville, there’s Wynberg, there’s Claremont, there’s Montague Gardens, there’s the Blue Downs industrial area.

“We are working relentlessly, focusing on those sites. How can we move them through all the bureaucratic steps? The thing I’ve learnt is really quite simple. There are so many steps to getting these sites developed that, if you do not have someone personally taking that thing through the process, everyday obsessing about it, it just falls by the wayside. I’ve set them the challenge of finding a whole raft of more appropriate sites. Social housing requires a certain minimal scale. It has to be a couple of hundred units at least for it to work. Otherwise, the financial model just can’t sustain itself.”

He said the City was trawling through land holdings to identify sites that were located close to economic opportunities to release for social housing.

“Get them into that pipeline and start working them through the process much quicker than the five years that it’s taken for this land. We are talking about one year to get from identification to release. That’s my mayoral priority project and hopefully that starts to, over time, ease the pressure for much-needed social housing in Cape Town. I am committed to the faster release of City-owned land, which is the most important asset that we have, for more affordable and social housing,” Hill-Lewis added. 

Anti-poor approach

The City’s approach to homelessness has been described as anti-poor, particularly the new unlawful occupation and streets bylaws, which critics say are dehumanising.

In June, Jonty Cogger, an attorney at housing organisation Ndifuna Ukwazi, called the City’s approach to the homeless cruel. “It simply does not make sense to fine and remove people’s homes when they already live in dire circumstances. Fining the unhoused residents of Cape Town does nothing to address homelessness; it only makes it more difficult for those who live on the street and burdens the criminal justice system further.” 

Buhle Booi, head of organising at Ndifuna Ukwazi, said they are happy that the mayor is taking the issue of land release seriously. “We want to say that public land should be used for housing and not for commodities and released to the private sector. Cape Town has had a massive shortage of affordable housing. We must indicate that it’s been five years [since 11 sites were announced for affordable housing]. We can’t be kept on a ceremonial release of land without anything ground-breaking on those sites.” 

He added that they will see if the commitment to social housing is genuine when the backlog of 365,000 people on the housing waiting list starts to decrease. “There are public buildings and empty spaces that are underutilised, and the city should be able to get these parcels and release them for development of houses. It’s not a question of being without options; there’s a lack of political will.

“We are yet to see meaningful intervention in dealing with the crisis of homelessness. It’s a social development issue; you can’t deal with those things with policing. It needs a different approach,” added Booi.

Judy-Ann Stevens, spokesperson for the ANC caucus in the City of Cape Town, said: “The main issue that we have is that there are a few projects almost at a standstill. Every time it rolls over, the biggest problem in the end is those beneficiaries who [had] qualified don’t qualify any more, which means they will stay as a backyard dweller. Where does it leave our people? We are for it, but there is a big need for housing. Not a lot of people are going to be helped. There is no urgency to push those projects. 

“We asked him [the mayor] to intervene on this issue so he can look into it at the [budget] meeting. Being in the opposition does not supersede service delivery. Our people are asking for so little. We need to have a working relationship.”

More can be done, she added. “The law enforcement going in and removing things did not help. We take note of what the mayor has said of this approach. We want to see how this is going to affect homelessness. There is still more that we as the City can do. We need to do it in a caring way.”

‘A nuanced legal debate’

On this criticism of the City’s approach, Hill-Lewis said he does not think that it’s fair but he accepts it is a nuanced legal debate. “I’ve sat here with law professors from UCT to try to find another mechanism to enforce bylaws without resorting to a fine. I do accept, in the large part, everyone knows that the fine is reasonably futile. Every expert opinion is that the only alternative available is arrest. That to me is perhaps worse. 

“This is part of why I’m focusing so much on the care interventions. The only mechanism that we previously had to deal with this was law enforcement. We deal with the consequences of these failures.

“I am saying let’s change the debate and deal with it through these care interventions so that we can try and get these people off the street in a sustainable, caring way. At the same time, there are some bylaw infringements in the city that require enforcement.”

Problem-solver 

Some of the challenges, he says, do not have simple solutions, but he liked being a problem-solver. “I really think it is possible for the City to stop load shedding; we have to be ambitious about it. I’ve become even more passionate about the issue of sewage in the city. It’s not about sewage, but about dignity. If I can make a meaningful improvement to sewage infrastructure in the city, I feel like we can improve dignity significantly in the poorer communities.” 

Homelessness is, by far, the hardest problem, he says. 

“The solutions are not obvious. This is not a conundrum unique to Cape Town and I see my colleagues around the world really struggling to figure out how to sustainably resolve this … We cannot just sit around for another two years and argue about who should be solving this. If this works sustainably, then fantastic, but it is a really difficult problem.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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All Comments 6

  • My respect for this man is growing day by day. He’s somebody who actually cares about this province and gets out there and does something about it. The exact opposite of the ANC. He certainly has my support…

  • Lewis’ effort is commendable, but Metros cannot realistically solve housing problems, which is the result of urbanisation, which is the result of inequality and climate change. It’s a planetary problem which a useless government like ours cannot even begin to think about solving. Promising houses is the same as widening the road to add more lanes to release congestion – it actually has the opposite effect: even more congestion. Dealing with people on the street is something completely different, and his approach is 100% correct. You need Law Enforcement, but to issue fines, there has to be a legitimate alternative offered by the City, be that rehabs, social interventions, debt holidays, or temporary housing. A kind of conscription might even be the answer. Anyway, a move in the right direction. Well done Mr. Mayor

    • You are right. As long as we have an uneducated population who are unable to earn a living, we will have a growing homeless problem. The national government needs to grow the economy, improve education and make investment appealing.

  • People who criticise the DA, usually based on dislike of personalities within the party, should try living within Cape Town under Hill-Lewis and the Western Cape under Alan Winde. They will realise that South Africa doesn’t have to be like living in the misery of the other eight provinces.

  • No mention is made of the fact that most of those homeless people are from out of the Western Cape. They come to the WC because it is the best place to be.
    No mention is made of the fact that there are heaps of land available, but it is owned by national government. Old military bases, unused railway land and more.

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