The City of Cape Town is tinkering around the edges of a crisis of homelessness that will continue to grow until it pauses to contemplate the reasons people are desperate enough to choose to live on the streets and develops programmes to address their circumstances.
The reasons are varied and complex, requiring a variety of complex interventions, including the provision of temporary accommodation linked to appropriate psychosocial services and skills development programmes aimed at creating pathways out of homelessness.
Part of the complexity is the density of communities on the Cape Flats. Since people of colour were forced to live in areas like Manenberg, Nyanga and Hanover Park, there’s been little to no provision for natural population expansion. Two and three generations later, the most visual development in these neighbourhoods has been the proliferation of backyard shacks and Wendy houses.
People end up on the streets because they are thrown out of their homes as a consequence of substance abuse, or overcrowding, or because they can’t contribute to the rent, or because they have psychological or intellectual challenges, or because they are desperate to pick up crumbs cast away by the urban economy.
Then there’s what former Western Cape Premier Helen Zille characterised as a “refugee” crisis from the Eastern Cape, which social scientists around the world term “urbanisation”. Urbanisation is a global phenomenon. According to the World Bank, about 56% of the global population lives in cities today. By 2050, the number will increase to nearly 70%.
Challenges of urbanisation
The pace of urbanisation in South Africa has been rapid over the past 30 years since the apartheid laws that criminalised the free movement of people of colour were abolished.
“The speed and scale of urbanisation bring challenges, such as meeting accelerated demand for affordable housing, viable infrastructure including transport systems, basic services, and jobs, particularly for the nearly one billion urban poor who live in informal settlements to be near opportunities,” the World Bank commented this month in an updated overview of urban development.
There’s no arguing with that. But then there’s the point Zille failed to mention: cities derive economic benefits from growth; the challenge is to harness the benefits well.
As the World Bank put it, “With more than 80% of global GDP generated in cities, urbanisation can contribute to sustainable growth through increased productivity and innovation if managed well.”
Cape Town’s current policy on homelessness, which effectively amounts to trying to maintain control of public spaces through policing, is as ineffective as applying a Band-Aid strip to the body of a patient with multiple fractures.
Don’t be fooled by the breathless mayoral announcement of a few hundred more shelter beds. To comply with national constitutional obligations on security of tenure, and justify its law-enforcement officers carrying out evictions, the city needs to be able to argue that shelter beds are available.
All cities do it differently.
Take New York City, for example. It’s the only major US city which guarantees the right to shelter. The guarantee stems from a 1979 court interpretation of the New York State Constitution which says, “The aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state and by such of its subdivisions.”
According to The New York Times, as of last week, 61,000 migrants had come to the city over the past year with more than 37,500 presently in city care at more than 120 emergency and eight large-scale shelters in buildings owned or leased by the city, including an array of motels and hotels.
Many of these people are of South and Central American origin.
Another 10,000 people live in shelters run by agencies other than the Department of Homeless Services.
The shelters don’t provide permanent homes; it’s an ongoing task for the city to provide homeless people with the type of support necessary to enable their movement through the system. Of course, it’s a fundamental role of all cities to ensure that the development of infrastructure keeps pace with inward migration.
New York is bigger and richer than Cape Town. But the two cities do have things in common, including constitutional obligations to provide shelter. In South Africa, the right to adequate housing is entrenched in sections 26 and 28 of the Constitution.
The Grootboom case
Arguably, the most widely cited judgment in the history of South Africa’s Constitutional Court involved the right to shelter of a Cape Town woman, Irene Grootboom. Grootboom was one of 900 members of a community who were evicted from shacks erected on a piece of land earmarked by the government for the development of housing.
After moving on to a muddy sports field in the dead of winter, the community filed an application to compel the city to fulfil its constitutional obligations to provide alternative accommodation. The application was successful, but was taken on appeal and wound its way to the Constitutional Court.
The court found that the state must take reasonable legislative and other measures within its available resources to achieve the progressive realisation of citizens’ rights to housing.
Dr Sanya Samtani of the Department of International and Constitutional Law at the University of Pretoria reported in a blog on the International Association of Constitutional Law’s website that by June last year, the Grootboom case had been cited on about 62 separate occasions by the Constitutional Court, 25 occasions by the Supreme Court of Appeal, and 114 occasions by high courts across South Africa.
Internationally, the decision has been cited by courts in Australia, England and Wales, India, Namibia and New Zealand, as well as by the European Court of Human Rights.
The proof of the pudding, however, is not the number of citations but the actual differences the judgment makes to the quality of life of real people.
Providing a few hundred more shelter beds in containers under flyover bridges — and calling it a “Safe Space” — can only be regarded as a very small part of a complex network of solutions to homelessness in Cape Town. The number of people living on the streets in Cape Town is estimated to be 14,000. The number of shelter beds is at best 3,500, according to recent information published by GroundUp.
According to the mayor, the City of Cape Town plans to spend R230-million over the next three years on its Safe Space Programme. The city’s total budget for this financial year is about R70-billion.
Cape Town also owns a number of properties suitable for conversion into decent halfway homes. And the city has the financial reserves to buy buildings, if necessary, with a view to developing the type of infrastructure needed to absorb people living on the streets — backed up by the services required to rehabilitate the people back to what we regard as conventional society.
The population of Cape Town today is estimated at around five million people. By 2050, according to CSIR projections, the population will have grown another 50% to 7½ million people.
Where will they stay? How many more of these people will fall through the cracks and end up on the streets?
Resolving the crisis of homelessness, for the city and homeless people themselves, requires more from Cape Town than laying on extra beds in shelters under flyovers. Instead of dreaming of an independent Western Cape homeland, the city government must invest in a future that embraces all who live in Cape Town regardless of when they settled there.
The city must invest in programmes to support people to get off the streets. Equally pressing is investing in programmes that begin to narrow the gap in the quality of citizens’ lives across the city. To enable dignified lives for all people.
Human beings are in a constant state of evolutionary flux, and so are the spaces in which more and more of us live. Cities that fail to accommodate the flow of people — whether they arrive to escape conflict, in search of economic opportunities, or because they were born into sociospatial poverty — do so at their peril. DM