Approaches for Charly and friends
Charly consoled me after knife-point mugging, when no security guard was around. He’s been there when my flat was broken into (by someone who’d rented an AirBnB unit in our building, before you jump to those assumptions), and helped me guard my car when moving. He was there when a (trafficked?) sex worker was hysterically fighting with the bouncers to get her passport back from that sleazy joint and the cops said it was an ‘issue for the CCMA’ and private security seemed more interested in the rights of the business than her rights.
Charly’s photo was in the newspaper, hands in begging motion, asking media at the fences of Strandfontein to get assistance - he, and others, wanted out.
In the many years I’ve known him, we’ve discussed politics, immigration, divorce, mental health, substance abuse, crime, law enforcement, the changing businesses that never make it on the corner where he guards cars. He’s a reader and a radio listener.
When we have our chats, we get harassed. We are not permitted to be - a white woman and a homeless man talking on the street. He must move on.
“It’s fine, he is not bothering me, I don’t need your assistance” is a line I’m ready to spill out as soon as those guards approach (where were they all those other times?) but its never enough - they will circle until we break apart.
There are many different types of people living on the streets of Cape Town. Some have been there since being dispossessed during apartheid, or have been born onto the streets. Others have landed on the streets as immigrants. Others have untreated mental health issues, or substance abuse issues. Some are couples, some have pets. Some, have escaped abusive homes or relationships, been expelled from unsafe gang situations or are not accepted in their community due to gender or sexual identities. Some have fallen on economic hardship and are temporarily homeless. Still others have been released from prison, hospital or some other form of state care without any integration support.
It is well known across the world that there is no one-size fits all solution for this diversity of needs. No single shelter model can deal with this diversity of needs. Yet, we have a dominant shelter service provider that - apart from being entirely under-resourced to supply the number of beds for the number of people on the street - provides a specific model of services that is not suited for the majority of people on the street who have special needs in terms of mental health, LGBTQ+ acceptance, substance abuse treatment (sobriety being a requirement to enter a shelter, vs shelters that focus on harm reduction are fundamentally different models).
There have been innovative programmes run by the likes of Streetscapes that focus on supportive housing, developmental work programmes, and behavioral change with communities of “permanent” or “chronic” homeless people in the neighbourhoods where they reside. In Observatory, the OBSID together with AfrikBurn and other partners brought ablutions and together with Streetscapes and community support, supportive housing (although a long-term operator and funding model is still being sought).
These are, however, small and not touching sides in terms of the scale of the need.
Communities that have attempted to create their own programmes have been faced with internal backlash and conflict. Probably most infamously in Sea Point, but I would be quite confident in thinking that most neighbourhood whatsapp groups have had a spat or two about “what to do about the homeless”.
A colleague asked me recently “how do you prevent a community meeting about homeless people degenerating into calling for them all to be violently removed, just because they are defecating on the pavement?”
My response was initially to laugh and say “tell them to provide toilets!”.
And then, more seriously, to ask “who is representing the homeless people in these meetings?” If the local homeless residents aren’t comfortable being represented, then at the very least, a local social worker, or an organisation such as Streetscapes, UTurn, or similar should be invited to speak with some relevant authority on the issues, needs and appropriate responses.
An ethnographer I worked with spent more than half a year getting to know the street people of Cape Town. He got to understand where they worked - many have informal day jobs cleaning, or collecting waste from places - why they chose specific alleys, trees or parks to sleep in, cook in or rest in. One of the major insights that I learnt was about what makes homeless people more visible to the rest of us, and what makes homeless people more aggressive.
Of course, right now, we are dealing with high visibility of homeless people. The City is literally going to court to regain their “right” to do “clean up operations”. These operations do not remove the homeless person. They remove the cardboard, plastics, trinkets, books, cooking utensils, ID books etc. that the person has collected over time. These are the items that make the person more visible to you and I.
The items that make the person feel warm, safe and stable, but make you and I gasp and say “sjoe, its getting really bad!”.
The theory is that by repeatedly removing these items, the streets become “undesirable”, and homeless people will “go away”. Like your and mine rubbish goes “away”, there is no magical place called “away”. Homeless people are on the streets for a reason, and yes - with fewer belongings they will temporarily become less visible (until they gather new belongings), and we will temporarily feel like there has been an improvement, but they are still homeless.
People in the sector know this - they have records of the same individuals coming to receive services year after year despite these operations. Going via the community courts systems, going via the shelter systems, fetching meals, etc.
These operations will encourage homeless people to move around a bit more, or seek out less visible places to sleep, and with some individuals - more mentally volatile individuals, they also induce behavioral change. Aggression begets aggression. Insecurity and instability begets volatility.
The City of Cape Town is calling for people to submit complaints about homeless people so that they can boost their case in court to take a heavier hand against homeless people.
Yes, where specific individuals are engaged in mugging or theft let those crimes be dealt with.
But the City has a role to play in honoring the Bill of Rights for ALL of the residents of our City, including those who are on the streets for all of the reasons I have described.
The City have an opportunity to stand up and govern - to create a platform for community leaders, NGOs, progressive CIDs, faith-leaders, CANs, medical practitioners and others who want to be a part of working with their own health and social development directorate towards:
sensitivity training for private security guards and law enforcement to deal with behavioural harm reduction (such as aggression, vs by-law focus), because it is important that anti-social behaviours are addressed, and everyone’s sense of safety and inclusion is considered. Learning to deal with behavioural approaches are well researched, and have even worked in pilots in our context. Many street people are likely to remain on the street and stick to specific neighbourhoods, which also means that rapport and relationships can be built, harm reduction and behaviour change, and improvements to dignity can all be achieved with people, on the street. We need to end the attitude that if a person has “refused shelter”, they can be targeted for harassment. (Edit: I include private security guards in this despite local government not having jurisdiction over private security. Its worth noting that many complaints about harassment of homeless people by private security are levied against CIDs. The guards often work hand in hand with law enforcement officers. CIDs are also established under a by-law of the City, and so I believe that there is room for the City to govern or develop programmes in this area).
diversification and expansion of the range of supportive housing models to suit more needs - this requires funding, as well as policy adjustments to support shelters that accommodate people who are still going through harm reduction. A major challenge in Cape Town is the operational capability to run programmes - “more than a shelter” means counselling, work support, etc - we’ve divested from this for so long, it will take time to re-build a sector that can deliver this at meaningful scale.
expansion of resources for substance abuse and mental health services. Period. And this would have benefits far greater than homelessness - all across Cape Town, let’s talk about trauma, gangsterism, substance abuse and mental health.
provision of hygiene and ablution facilities to minimise the impact of homeless people on the public realm - this is a quick win, and a no brainer. Every neighbourhood should just get on with bringing a little dignity to the whole situation.
continuation of the field workers providing referral services and “reintegration: services”. While I’m critical of “reintegration” as a one-size-fits-all approach, as many people do not have a safe place to be reintegrated to, these field workers do support people to find critical primary health services (where the City does do really well - credit where it is due) and some people, especially those recently homeless, do manage to find support out of homelessness. This is a useful safety net for preventing newly homeless from becoming chronically homeless.
training of councilors and debunking the myth of “queue jumping” (supportive housing and shelters is not attractive to a family on the housing waiting list, let’s talk this through if people really still believe that.)
localised solutions. the local homeless community is different in Vredehoek to Muizenberg, to Obs and Sea Point. Recognise this in where we choose to set up different models.
What else? I’m sure many communities and experts in the field have brilliant ideas that are better than the fine’em, chase’em and rob’em and fight’em in court approach we’ve got right now.
Please write to your Councillor and ask them to take an approach that is more likely to work in the long term, and recognises the rights of all people.
#homesnothandcuffs #servicesnotsirens #foodnotfines
PS I’ve heard your calls and migrated to Substack for unlimited free reading. For those new to my writing, my previous posts are all on Medium.