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Opinionista

The City of Cape Town should listen to its people and learn the lessons of Strandfontein

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Kyla Hazell is a popular educator and Robyn Park-Ross is a researcher at Ndifuna Ukwazi.

Narrow thinking has not solved Cape Town’s housing crisis and it may be preventing us from seeing obvious solutions.

Within less than a week, roughly 700 people remaining at the controversial Strandfontein homeless shelter will have been relocated from the site that’s been subject to significant public scrutiny since it was established as the primary temporary shelter for Cape Town’s homeless population during Covid-19. 

In a statement on 10 May, the City released new information on an updated three-pronged approach to follow Strandfontein’s decommissioning. While the decision to close is important, the story so far leaves us concerned that the mistakes of Strandfontein could be repeated, as the City implements this adjusted approach if greater public engagement is not embraced.

How did the City initially come to the conclusion that bringing hundreds of often immunocompromised people into a mass camp was the best solution for Cape Town’s homeless population? This is a serious question given the nature of the coronavirus.  

The core concern has been that rather than protecting those on site, Strandfontein posed an increased risk of the spread of Covid-19 because the large number of people – up to 600 in one tent at certain points – is a clear barrier to observing the necessary physical distancing and hygiene protocols. 

In its statements, the City consistently assured the public that alternatives were considered, experts were consulted, and reasons existed for the original decision – insinuating the public should stay out of the City’s way. This is not good enough.  

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is both the significance and the limitations of the state. We are right to call for transparency and to raise questions. Human and political rights do not fall away during an emergency; they become entirely more essential.

 Various reports of the poor conditions at the site have been disputed by the City as politicking, and have become hard to verify as the City has restricted media access to the site. However, the logic that it would be safer to have fewer people grouped together is obvious. 

The overarching recommendation from an independent monitors’ report submitted to the Human Rights Commission (HRC) was to make smaller sites available through a process coordinated by an intersectoral committee, including representatives of those to be moved. We recognise the complexity of decision-making at this time and are relieved that the City’s own learning curve, surely influenced by both internal lessons and external pressures, has led to the conclusion that smaller sites are a safer solution. However, it is not clear who will be part of the process to ensure all alternatives are safe, appropriate, and the best we can do for a vulnerable group.

Three options are available to the remaining Strandfontein residents now. These include reintegration, returning to the street, or taking up additional space that is being prepared at smaller shelter sites around Cape Town. The City’s usual shelter capacity is about 2,000 beds, without social distancing. But numerous other viable alternatives were available – arguably safer and more supportive. 

Although the debate around Strandfontein is hot to the touch, the divisive exchanges have seldom spoken to alternatives. In fact, Strandfontein Homeless Committee member Carlos Mesquita is one of the few voices to publicly propose another option. He suggested that the Train Lodge – a currently vacant 3-star bed and breakfast on the foreshore – would be an ideal place for people to be accommodated. His recommendation is not out of line with a solution that numerous cities around the world have turned toward: sheltering those without homes in hostels and hotels that would otherwise be empty due to a sharp drop in tourist travel worldwide.

In London, local authorities and charities secured more than 300 hotel beds for homeless persons during March. In New York, hotels have now been recognised by the Mayor as preferable to shelter sites. This came after 9 out of 10 of the City’s congregate shelters (sleeping around 20 people per room) confirmed at least one positive Covid-19 case.  

Taking into account that market rates have fallen in the hospitality industry generally, and that the state can seek reimbursement from emergency relief funding, the monetary cost of securing rooms is one that housing advocates feel the city can bear – certainly more readily than it can bear the human cost of not properly sheltering its most vulnerable residents.

Using hotels to provide emergency responses is not unusual historically. During exceptional moments such as wars or large migrations, hotels have served as reception centres, media bases, strategic strongholds, field hospitals and prisons. Perhaps the most decisive repurposing yet seen in the current crisis is California Governor Gavin Newsom’s $50-million “Project Roomkey”. Facing the possibility of up to 60,000 of its 108,000 strong homeless population contracting Covid-19 over the next two months, the state of California rented two entire hotels as quarantine sites for the homeless, purchased 1,300 trailers and began negotiating 51,000 hotel rooms as quarantine spaces. Newsom described the strategy as being “about bringing people inside with a door, a key and a lock – with as much supportive services as we can provide”.

 

Across the political spectrum, we need to be willing to imagine new possibilities. However, pushing for this is difficult when the public is not let into decision making.

 

Immediately, we might think that South African cities – and cities in the Global South generally – simply don’t have the fiscal reserves that would allow for this. But is this assumption accurate? It costs about R2,300 per bed per month to shelter a homeless person, not considering the cost of investing in new infrastructure to temporarily expand capacity. Hotels are already set up to accommodate large numbers while allowing for physical distancing. They are accustomed to storing and preparing large quantities of food and maintain adequate hygiene standards as a practice. Furthermore, these existing structures are currently, for the most part, empty and struggling in a city that usually sees about 1.2 million international visitors a year. Cape Town’s hotels have roughly 9,000 beds standing empty, Airbnb rates have been slashed, and most industries are willing to adapt if it means sustaining some form of business. 

Even if hotel accommodation is out of reach, many possibilities remain. Underutilised public buildings could be an option. Berlin is making use of vacant office space. With most universities planning for remote teaching until the new year, we could turn to university residences. These buildings are both appropriately set up and heavily subsidised by public funding. In the early stages of our Covid-19 response, Gauteng Province looked into empty boarding school hostels as temporary accommodation for homeless people while learners were at home. Yet, the proposal was ultimately blocked by school governing bodies

The idea of housing homeless people in hotels, hostels and other alternatives may seem strange to many people. But why should these spaces only be reserved for some at the expense of others? Are homeless people really only deserving of tents and prefabricated structures while beds across the city lie empty? Limited and prejudiced thinking has not solved Cape Town’s housing crisis so far, and it may be preventing us from seeing obvious solutions now. Across the political spectrum, we need to be willing to imagine new possibilities. However, pushing for this is difficult when the public is not let into decision making.

This is not an issue of party politics; it’s about political engagement and transparency. Post-1994, South Africans tend to be presented with decisions that have already been taken. If we are watching carefully and ready to intercede, we might be able to slip in a few comments before things get finalised. Where the outcome ends up negatively (and often foreseeably) impacting a constitutional right, someone heads to court, challenging an approach post facto to get answers about how it was reached. At that point, the Constitutional Court has given us the principle that proving reasonableness for any policy action must include being able to show all options were considered and demonstrate that the selection of one is justified. We should not need to litigate for this kind of reasonable engagement or meaningful participation, but in the case of Strandfontein, we’ve again found that threatening litigation has been more effective than calls from the general public for answers.

Covid-19 has shown us that countries whose leaders acted late or unwisely have suffered catastrophic consequences. We need good leadership right now. And while it is important to offer the state a measure of trust and understanding, it is also painfully clear that central power cannot reach each person in need, or foresee all possibilities. Concern about the City of Cape Town’s response to homelessness should be welcomed, not treated with contempt.

So while the City’s most recent statements are welcome, we need even more information: which alternatives have been considered and why were those selected deemed most appropriate? What calculations have been run and who formed part of the process? Was a suggestion like that proposed by the Strandfontein Homeless Committee engaged with? How are we going to ensure that our most vulnerable people are protected in the process of shutting down one solution, found to be problematic, and moving onto another? These are questions we and others have raised directly with the City in recent weeks, but we are still without full answers.

While it remains uncertain what this next phase will mean for the health and safety of homeless people in Cape Town, what is certain is that public scrutiny and debate over government action is essential. The City should embrace civic participation for better, safer and more caring solutions, taking into account a wide range of alternatives. 

This is what democracy requires. DM

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