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City of Cape Town’s understanding of homelessness crisis is sorely lacking

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Carlos Filipe Mesquita is a former homeless man who endeavours to find sustainable ways of accommodating those living on the streets. He is the founder of Outsider, a digital platform that seeks to inform the public on homelessness. He works as a researcher and spokesperson for the Good Party in the Western Cape Provincial Legislature and is the party's representative for the LGBTQIA+ community.

Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis, I am appealing to you to please stop painting a picture that the manner in which the City of Cape Town has chosen to address homelessness is working or is successful.

Dear Mayor of Cape Town, Geordin Hill-Lewis,

It seems as if every time you are granted eviction orders to “evict” people living on the streets you feel the need to write an opinion article in order to defend or motivate your actions.

You go to great lengths to portray that what the City of Cape Town does in those instances is done not only for the good of the city and the city’s housed community but most importantly, for the good of those living on the streets.

You also go into great detail in explaining the caring interventions being offered by the City’s staff in offering sustainable alternatives to the individuals you plan on evicting and the post-eviction services in monitoring what happens to all these individuals subsequent to an eviction.

You go further and try to convince the City’s residents that this “model” you are using to address homelessness is successful and suggest other cities should try it as a model that is working.

You go on to share a 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.”

First, let me remind you of something I mentioned to you when you first shared the news of plans to open a 300-bed transitional safe space in Green Point over a year and a half ago. Besides offering my congratulations and sharing my excitement with you about your announcement, I appealed to you to speak with some of those living on the streets of Cape Town in order to get their understanding of what transitional shelter means to them.

I told you then that their understanding of a transitional space would align closely with the global understanding of the concept: the provision of a lockable space (no matter how small, where people could experience a certain level of privacy, exert a sense of control over said area and be able to maintain relationships with which they come into the safe space.

Based on this understanding of a transitional space, none of your safe spaces can be considered transitional. The fact that at your one safe space, people still sleep on pallets outside in the elements with corrugated sheets as shelter from the rain; that in the others you have people sleeping in large dormitories and dictate that they spend 12 hours of the day outside of the safe space, where the City’s by-laws can easily criminalise them for loitering; and that in some instances they have to use the bucket system to wash and relieve themselves, I would suggest you refrain from using the word dignity.

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

Further to this, these individuals have a limited time that they are granted to stay at one of the City’s safe spaces. Once that is up, there are no other options available but to return to the streets and start the process all over again.

The only sustainability you are achieving is keeping people enslaved in homelessness.

Funding and law

With regards to national funding: this is available and is allocated to the provincial government based on the number of beneficiaries they claim to support and report on to the national department.

Your “model”, as you refer to how the City is addressing homelessness, is and has in no way been successful. By your own admission and that of your Mayco member for Social Development, Cllr Patricia van der Ross, your “model” managed to “reintegrate or reunite” 112 individuals in the last financial year, where the City had a budget of R94-million for that period.

The other interventions you refer to in those same statements refer to having “referred people for accommodation or rehabilitation services”. You and I both know, Sir, referrals are not successes. Some remain just that, referrals.

The second insight you share with us is that the law and courts system as it stands demands that cities dedicate extensive resources to managing the complex web of legal processes required to legally evict people from public places.

They should in fact be even more demanding and extensive to dissuade you from choosing a senseless route — evicting people already living on the streets. Which in effect means you are merely displacing already displaced people.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Fiery end to Green Point’s ‘Tent City’ as homeless evicted

You seem to forget, but your DA councillor, Carmen Siebritz will remind you, as she did the public a week ago by admitting that all these big encampments came up after the City asked those leaving Strandfontein where they wanted to be “dumped”. I, of course know this, as I was one of those individuals.

Numbers

The third insight you share with us is how you are using the census data which “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.” You again show ignorance in assuming the extra 2,000 are due to Covid-19.

Let me try and enlighten you. The census you refer to as credible, Sir, is everything but credible. I, along with other organisations in the sector offered our assistance and participated.

It has been widely reported and even admitted by those conducting the census that their first attempt at counting those living on the streets was a complete failure.

Knowing this, I approached you and the City and asked that you join me in a real-time count of those living on our streets. My only condition was that the 10 individuals with the lived experience I was using be included in the group that would be chosen to go on this huge mission. It aimed to get as close a figure as possible to how many people are living on our streets and do assessments with them to find out how they landed up on the streets, what their experience had been like and what will it take for them to come off the streets.

I have repeated this call to both the City and yourself as we progress on our mission to count those living on our street, because I believe everybody counts.

We have to date counted 21,842 individuals living on the streets in the metropole and have done four-page assessments with 10,459 individuals. These figures should show you how little you know about those you are meant to be offering services to and why your model is in actual fact a huge failure.

In your opinion article, you give a few insights which are again not based on any reliable data or interviews you have collected from those living on the streets of the city of which you are mayor of but rather on your perceptions of what happens when you want to “evict” these individuals.

Personal insight

Let me give you some insights from my own lived experience of being “homeless” on these same streets and on data and interviews collected from those most affected.

You are not working with “the homeless”. You are working with individuals living on the streets with individual needs to come off those streets. They might all currently share the temporary status of being homeless but it does not define who they are and what their needs are.

Most of those living in these encampments are chronically homeless. They have been to the shelters and safe spaces. They would prefer not to live on the streets, but not in the model you provide. Hence their demand for transitional accommodation where the potential exists for them to one day be able to live independently again.

For your safe spaces to be acceptable and seen as transitional, they would have to offer lock-up rooms, no matter how small, a space where they can experience privacy and exercise control over that area.

They would have to be given agency over what their best version that they are working towards would look like.

Safe spaces are currently accommodating groups of individuals that should not be in temporary and emergency shelters as the reasons for them landing up on the streets is never going to change. These are groups where the very thing that defines them in life has resulted in their rejection by society and these are things that won’t change (the elderly, the disabled, those with chronic mental health challenges and LGBTQIA+ youth).

It is the duty of the City to put pressure on provincial and national departments to address this travesty.

Plan of action

There is no way you or the City can open up enough safe spaces or shelters to accommodate everyone currently living on the street. I again suggest, as I did last year, that you hand over responsibility for those living on the streets to ward councillors, who with churches, businesses, housed and unhoused residents in the ward, come together, find and agree on a space where people living on the streets can be accommodated and offered services. Where a symbiotic relationship between housed and unhoused can develop and where services can be exchanged.

These can become City-sanctioned homeless hubs where people are assisted while still on the streets. This allows you to then impose a ban on all these unmanaged, unserviced, unsightly, unhygienic and unsafe encampments.

Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis, I am appealing to you to please stop painting a picture that the manner in which the City has chosen to address homelessness is working or is successful. Stop telling yourself and others that evictions are working both for the housed and unhoused because you know as well as I know that nothing the City is currently doing can be termed successful or sustainable.

Everything about these interventions is temporary, even what seems like a win, like getting rid of those at the Three Anchor Bay Tennis Academy, and the few that accepted your offer of places at a safe space are temporary. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Derek Taylor says:

    Dream on Carlos, there is no solution for the overwhelming majority of them.

  • Vincent Britz says:

    Dear Mr Carlos Mesquita.

    Please stop making it sound like the homeless people are right by moving on to private land and destroying everything around them while still breaking to the houses / business around the area they stay!!

    Why aren’t you asking where is the corrupt, thieving ANC government that has destroyed this country and left hundreds of people on the streets due to their own hand! All the corrupt, thieving ANC government has done is steal, steal, lie and destroy everything in there path.

    As I was a middle class person just before Covid and now am a homeless person because I can’t find work because am to white in SA!

    • JDW 2023 says:

      I am sorry to hear about your personal circumstances. That being said, you are attacking the author and it is uncalled for. He did not at any point state imply that it is ‘right’ for citizens without a home to move onto private land. Nor is it in this context relevant to expect the author to shift blame onto the national ruling party when that won’t change anything now at this very moment. The ANC is hardly going to assist a DA-governed geographical service area. I believe the author is taking a practical view in the here and the now by addressing alleged falsehoods that the city mayor is uttering whilst offering tangible solutions to address the situation for now. Remove a little bit of the emotion and see that he is acting with a positive agenda. Cudos to the author for the obvious hard work and thought put into this. Without doubt, homelessness in SA is a very complex problem and that requires practicality mixed with respect for all citizens’ right, those with a home and those without.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    On the one hand I really am trying to understand & be empathetic to the plight of homelessness. People that already have lost everything shouldn’t be punished even more.

    On the other though there are issues that need to be addressed. First is the lack of ability to protect property and infrastructure from simply being squatted on, with little and long winded recourse for property owners. This especially includes property that impact others significantly. I have zero empathy for instance for the squatters on the train tracks, that effectively made life much harder and more expensive for the poor traveling to town for work. Desperation is one thing, but we are not talking about mere inconvenience here for a large amount of people that are already struggling to not become homeless. The second is the the behavior of many homeless once they have settled. While this argument is often dismissed as middle class whining, there is now doubt that theft, mugging and other crimes, heavy drug use and public defecation increase substantially as the number of homeless increases in an area. Sadly I had to witness this, year’s ago renting in Sea Point. Threatening behavior and all.

    It all comes down to responsibilities. And that does include the homeless. When they settled on the train tracks many knew and expected the city to react no matter who was impacted. They want to live among us, but are unwilling to take any responsibility for themselves or change their behavior.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    Part 2: It’s a similar topic when it comes to the fires that are started by homeless people. There is some behavior that cannot be excused, that remain the responsibility of individuals no matter their current home status.
    This includes endangering others, and it needs to be acceptable as a citizen to defend yourself against threats. If the homeless increase these threats the reaction against them is justified and understandable.
    We all have rights and responsibilities that we must adhere to whether we like it or not, and if the homeless truly do want to be reintegrated into society, they will need to show at least a minimum of accountability for their own actions. The cities response is not perfect, and I agree that a safe space even in form of lockers would help immensely, but the homeless will themselves need to at least try to adapt to the others whose space they have illegally invaded. They expect the city to fulfill their needs , but have no intention of fulfilling their end of the deal no matter the people they impact around them.
    So, a serious question, how do you think we as a society, including the homeless, can tackle these issues? Laying all the blame at the city or citizens door cannot be the answer. Surely the citizens and property owners should have some rights to when it comes to the space that they are paying for and they themselves are living in!

  • Graeme J says:

    I suggest that instead of criticising the best run metro and province in the country, you do some decent research into the homelessness crisis in the rest of the country.

    Cape Town and the Western Cape certainly has its issues, but the rest of the country is an absolute balls up by comparison.

    It’s time for you to stop nitpicking on the WC and CPT. Rather write opinion pieces aimed at the real the cause of the mess… the central government.

  • J vN says:

    ” I again suggest, as I did last year, that you hand over responsibility for those living on the streets to ward councillors, who with churches, businesses, housed and unhoused residents in the ward, come together, find and agree on a space where people living on the streets can be accommodated and offered services.”

    Very glib.

    1. Land isn’t free.
    2. Services aren’t either.

    Somebody will pay, make no mistake. They will pay in more ways than one. There’s not some vast pool of rights that can be dished out. Somebody’s rights to not see his property’s value plummet, will be diminished, the minute a squatter camp springs up. Some people will pay in terms of their right to personal safety, as drug addicts harass and rob them.

    Ratepayers will find their money going to “offer services” to the homeless, instead of fixing potholes and leaks.

    Again, very glib to spew meaningless platitudes like “churches and ward councillors must come together.” What the author really means is, “somebody else must stump up the money and let go of their rights to personal safety.”

  • andrew farrer says:

    From DefenceWeb 2019 – “When she was Mayor of Cape Town, Patricia de Lille called for five large areas of government-owned land to be transferred to the City or province so that low cost housing could be built there. Now that de Lille is minister of infrastructure and public works, de Lille may push for the transfer of the land.
    The five sites are the Culemborg railway ground between the N1 and Cape Town CBD, Air Force Base Ysterplaat, SAS Wingfield, the Youngsfield military base and Denel property between Khayelitsha and Strand. Western Cape Premier Alan Winde on 30 May said these properties could yield up to 100 000 housing units which would be enough to meet half of the affordable housing demand on Cape Town’s database.”
    Well aunty Pat? Only 100 000 units WTF? don’t they know how to build flats?

  • Elroy Bramwell says:

    Not having anyone to provide refuge for you, be it family, friends, or society is awful. Government, at any level, needs to ensure that the homeless enjoy similar rights to those who can provide for themselves. How they became homeless isn’t the issue. Rather, now that they are homeless, we need to find solutions to the problem. One could be that there should be a Treasury budget allocation for dealing with homelessness. It’s a national crisis that needs national attention. This is not a political party effect. It’s a harsh effect of economic development and society’s attitude where some get left behind and so it needs intervention by society and government.

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