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Homelessness is a complex socioeconomic issue that demands more than providing shelter

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Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

The 2022 Census showed that there were 55,719 homeless people in South Africa at the time of counting. If we do not tackle the scourge of homelessness, our freedom is called into question.

In August, a fire ripped through a multi-storey building in the heart of Johannesburg. As the city grappled with the sheer devastation and the harrowing images, it emerged that the Albert Street building was mainly occupied by the homeless. This provided some insight into the crisis of homelessness in the city.

The British columnist Dawn Foster once wrote that “the homeless often feel invisible, allowed to plummet through widening holes in the social safety net, then hidden in doorways from which people avert their eyes”.

We often speak of the triple challenges that South Africa faces – unemployment, poverty and inequality. What we often forget is that these challenges converge and manifest into homelessness.

The 2022 Census, released just last month, provided further insight into just how pervasive homelessness is in the country. The statistics showed that there were 55,719 homeless people at the time of counting. Of that number, 39,052 were men and 16,667 were women.

The figures are further divided into the number of people living in shelters and the so-called “roofless” people – 44,512 people lived on the streets, and only 11,207 lived in shelters. Gauteng recorded the highest percentage of homeless people at 45.6% (25,384 people), followed by the Western Cape at 17.5% (9,743 people), and KwaZulu-Natal at 13.9% (7,768 people). The Northern Cape and Mpumalanga recorded the lowest proportions, with 1.1% (588 people) and 2.3% (1,306 people) respectively.

The census counters found that the main reason for homelessness was either joblessness or income challenges, which affects 41.3% of the unhoused population. Drug and alcohol abuse was the second-most common cause, at 25%. Arguments with family and friends rendered 17% of the population homeless, while parents’ deaths accounted for 8.8% and the inability to afford accommodation accounted for 7.9%.

Moreover, as the census revealed, there was a challenge in terms of accuracy at a national and global level, thus “rendering programmes aimed at addressing poverty, substance abuse and ill health ineffective”. Homelessness has emerged as an epidemic that we must tackle.

It is imperative to first understand homelessness and its impact – beyond not having an adequate or fixed night-time residence. It is a complex socioeconomic issue.

As the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) states, “a deeper understanding of homelessness extends beyond lacking a roof over your head; it includes a lack of access to socioeconomic opportunities essential for human survival, such as access to job opportunities, health services and education, among others. By taking into account the multiple dimensions of homelessness, we begin to understand that people who are homeless are not a distinct population and that the pathways into and out of homelessness are neither linear nor uniform.”

This definition demonstrates that addressing homelessness requires more than shelter. It requires interventions that tackle its root cause.

There are some proposed policy interventions, including the City of Johannesburg policy, which aims to comprehensively address homelessness through regular research, monitoring, awareness campaigns, hotspot identification, collaboration with authorities, skills development, access to rehabilitation, funding models for shelters, family reintegration, diverse accommodation and assessment centres, among other interventions.

Nationally, the Department of Human Settlements has introduced initiatives such as developing socialised housing programmes for low-income families, refurbishing informal settlements and a special-needs housing initiative that provides indigent families with access to temporary shelters.

I would argue that any strategies to combat homelessness should involve the construction of affordable housing; social support services, including mental health and addiction counselling and job training programmes; legal aid and protection against discrimination; the implementation of government policies, including social safety nets and educational reforms; as well as long-term solutions including education and economic development.

Regular monitoring and evaluation are essential to assess the impact of these interventions and redefine strategies accordingly. While the policy in place does address some of these areas, we must ensure policy implementation – it is not enough to simply draw up strategies. We have to put them into practice.

As the census has demonstrated, homelessness in South Africa is painfully high. We are a country grappling with burgeoning socioeconomic challenges, and the sheer levels of homelessness are symptomatic of this. Here, we must heed the words of our former president, Nelson Mandela, who said “freedom is meaningless if people cannot put food in their stomachs, if they can have no shelter, if illiteracy and disease continue to dog them”.

Indeed, without tackling this scourge, our freedom is called into question. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    It requires a government.

    Maybe one day, if we get a real one, things will change.

  • Ann Bown says:

    Homelessness solutions will not come from government alone but through community actions…local business chambers, faith based organisations, public safety groups, ratepayers associations, youth initiatives, skills training, health services, counselling and a lot of effort from all of us to understand the plight of others. Don’t judge!

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