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Helping people off the streets and into safe spaces — insights from Cape Town

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Geordin Hill-Lewis is the Mayor of Cape Town.

Despite profound difficulties, Cape Town’s recent successes show that we have a model that works. Here are four insights from our experience in restoring public places and extending a hand of care to the homeless.

In recent months the City of Cape Town has got a number of eviction orders for homeless tented encampments around the city. Last week, the first large order was carried out when those living illegally at the Green Point Tennis Courts were evicted.

These orders follow 18 months of meticulous work and planning, and an unprecedented effort to offer care and support to all of those living at these public places.

This recent progress is an appropriate moment to update the public on the work the City is doing to address homelessness in a caring and humane way.

As cities the world over grapple with the challenge of homelessness, Cape Town is advancing a path-breaking approach to help people off the streets, and restore public places for public use.

There is a high bar – financially, legally and operationally – for any South African city hoping to implement dignified, caring solutions to the unlawful occupation of public places.

I would like to share four insights from Cape Town in light of several recent high court eviction orders backing the City’s sustainable solutions offered as alternative accommodation.

In each of these instances – in Green Point, parts of the east CBD and Victoria Road – the City offered shelter to every person, showing care and respect with a full range of psychosocial support offered to all.

This is the first crucial insight: Cities must be prepared to make a substantial investment in expanding dignified transitional shelter using their own funding, despite not holding a constitutional mandate or designated budgets for social welfare. This is necessary as NGO-run night shelters are insufficient to meet the challenge, and there is no national funding forthcoming to change this.

Cape Town is investing a quarter of a billion rand to expand and operate our “Safe Space” facilities over three years. These facilities offer dignified shelter coupled with a range of social support services to help people off the streets sustainably.

With the opening of a new 300-bed Safe Space in Green Point set for this winter, the City will soon offer more than 1,000 beds across the Cape Town CBD, with a growing footprint in other parts of the city.

This is aside from the funding we provide to NGO shelters.

Complex legal processes

The second insight from our care programme, is that the law and courts system as it stands, demand that cities dedicate extensive resources to managing the complex web of legal processes required to legally evict people from public places.

Legislation requires cities to approach the courts for an eviction order where a person erects any structure that is deemed a dwelling under the Prevention of Illegal Eviction (PIE) Act.

This order must be obtained before any eviction can be applied, sometimes taking months, if not years, to obtain from a court. In general, court rolls are extremely full, delaying the hearing of matters on both the opposed and unopposed rolls.

Matters may become opposed at the 11th hour, and respondents may also intentionally delay matters due to their legal counsel not being in place or well enough acquainted with the case, a topic I have covered previously on this platform.

Even once the court grants an order there may still be delays in carrying out the eviction due to SAPS availability and resources.

All of these delays only serve to extend a person’s undignified and unhealthy stay on the streets, particularly for those who sadly refuse all offers of social support, despite getting off the streets being the best choice for their well-being, safety and health.

This is why seeking eviction orders is a last resort only once we have made all of our care interventions and offers of dignified alternative accommodation.

When offers of support are persistently turned down, we must turn to the courts for intervention. No person has the right to illegally occupy a public space and reserve it only for themselves, while resisting all offers of care and help.

Gathering data on the homeless

Which brings me to the third insight: The transient life of people living on the streets means it is difficult to definitively survey their social circumstances. This is another prerequisite for gaining an eviction order, and is often very difficult to achieve with the certainty that our courts demand.

First-hand data from the recent Census offers a credible estimate of 6,630 persons living on Cape Town’s streets. This is an increase from the 4,000 counted in the City’s 2018/19 enumeration, and can be especially attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic, lockdowns and related economic impact.

People living on the streets often move location throughout the day, and change where they sleep at any time, depending on income-generation activities. Some may not have identification, while others may refuse, give false information, or are in no condition to speak to the City’s social workers owing to addiction issues.

It requires extensive human resources, and coordination from a capable state, to identify and survey each person, and document their personal circumstances and responses to offers of social support. Delays in court processes compound this problem, as information becomes out of date and, through no fault of its own, the City is often obligated to initiate a new survey process again before an order is granted.

Post-eviction, our social care staff also need to manage a database of every person who has been moved, and track their progress or regression.

To manage this, Cape Town invests in resourcing teams of social development professionals, as well as our Displaced Peoples Unit, who work in tandem daily to offer support to people living on the street.

A matter of land ownership

The fourth insight is that cities can only act on land that they own, while many of the larger tented encampments are on sites owned by various national government departments. This is no coincidence. Those living illegally at these sites know that these national departments are unlikely to act with any sense of urgency.

We need other spheres of government to act on their land. Many residents have rightly expressed dismay at the state of the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. The Department of Defence and national Department of Public Works manage this facility and the grounds immediately surrounding it.

Despite our constant urging and cajoling, there has been no action until very recently from these departments to restore this site and improve public safety around it. We are pleased that this seems to be changing now. The City offered to assist in the surveying required of the Castle site and, we are told, the responsible national departments will file an imminent eviction application.

I raise all of these issues not in complaint, but in an effort to increase public awareness of what it takes to offer care to the vulnerable and manage public places sustainably. Perhaps this will also help well-meaning people of influence in South Africa’s other cities who share Cape Town’s vision.

Read more in Daily Maverick: City of Cape Town is removing homeless people from the street – and offering them a Safe Space instead

Despite these profound difficulties, our recent successes show that we have a model that works. We are cautiously optimistic that we can restore public places and extend a hand of care to the homeless.

In this way, we are building towards a city of hope for all, where even a person living on the streets can hope to reintegrate into society, reunite with family, and get off the streets sustainably.

With the right mix of determination and resource investments, it is possible for our cities to promote dignified solutions to help people off the streets, while ensuring that public places are open and available for all. DM

Geordin Hill-Lewis is the mayor of Cape Town.

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  • Pet Bug says:

    Thank you Mayor and CoCT. You guys are definitely trying to resolve this unfortunate situation in a correct and human manner.
    I’m hoping that the Buitengracht road will soon also be on the agenda.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    DA – striving for the best for all our citizens.

    Stop the ANarChy!

  • V L says:

    Surely others also find it odd that the Mayor offers no evidence that the city’s approach is actually working? How many people helped by the city have made their way out of homelessness for good? What percent of those who use Safe Spaces have been able to secure stable housing or work? Without this data, how do we know we’re heading in the right direction, or that the 83M/year pledged for the next 3 years is being spent effectively? It seems to me that a lot of effort has been made here to reassure the public that the city is taking a “humane and caring” approach. Yet the only “recent progress” cited are evictions and court victories for evictions. It’s admirable and urgent that the Mayor is taking this issue on. But it’s critical that he offers proof that his approach is working towards the only metric that really matters – ensuring people are making their way out of homelessness for good.

    • Steve Davidson says:

      So, we can send them round to your house to live in the garden perhaps?

    • Ben Harper says:

      There’s plenty of proof for all to see, it’s just the blind and those that choose not to see that ignore it

    • B H says:

      I hear your point. Data is important. I think this article is outlining that this process has only really just started.

      And the approach they are using has been successful in many European cities. Right now I’m fairly certain they haven’t had ample time to gather the data to prove this is working in CT, but I reckon we’ll see results and, if successful, replicate this across other South African cities.

      Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.

  • David Mark says:

    I love this mayor – no major controversies, just a clear care for our city and desire to help it becomes one of the best in the world.

  • Lindy Gaye says:

    Thank you Mayor – you and the City are doing a great job.

  • Gareth Searle says:

    glad to hear you are trying a holistic approach. This idea of “not in my back yard” is terrible naive and shortsighted. Well done and good luck mr mayor + team.
    next : government sponsored work apprenticeships + programs for the unemployed enmass.

  • Bob Dubery says:

    Impressive. Data, a caring tone, humanity, and an understanding of the issues. Doing what you can, where you can, and explaining why sometimes you can’t.

  • dave kloot says:

    How many mayors in our various cities can claim that they are doing anything even remotely close to what this young man is doing to benefit the poor and needy in their cities? My guess. Not a single non DA major!! They are all too busy lining their own pockets and stealing from the very citizens they purport to represent.

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