Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)
The names Sam and Fanny Gross are indelibly carved into the fabric of efforts to address urban homelessness in the country. They, with Catholic priest Roger Hickley, founded the Haven Night Shelter movement in 1978.

Fanny was a criminologist and Sam a lawyer. With a commitment to social justice, these two Capetonians devoted their lives to the upliftment of the city’s homeless people.

The trio faced great opposition to placing shelters within the City precinct, but they resolutely stood up for those with no voice. And 41 years later, the Haven Night Shelter Movement is a tribute to their courage.

However, 41 years later it is sad to report that the fight which Fanny, Sam and Roger fought is still not won. Despite our country becoming a constitutional democracy with embedded human rights, homeless people are still no better off in 2019.

Often referred to as a “nuisance” in society, with the laws which are used to “manage” them being referred to as “nuisance legislation”, it’s not surprising to see the widening gap between the government and its most vulnerable citizens.

Recent reports of homeless people being issued fines by the City of Cape Town with amounts as high as R1500 for offences listed under certain by-laws, adds more insight into the crisis surrounding this issue.

The assumption with which homelessness is managed is driven by a “one-size-fits-all” mentality, and does little to show respect for any form of treatment diversity within the homeless community. Homeless people are homeless for a myriad reasons that differ from one person to another.

Some have left their respective homes due to abuse, some due to mental health challenges, and others because of overcrowding.

Without government and private funders being willing to provide the funding so that organisations that work with the homeless are able to provide medical, legal, clinical and social work specialists to expertly work with individual cases, the shelter will only have the capacity to offer a “one-stop” solution, without paying due regard to the diverse reasons that push people on to the streets.

The reality is that for some people on the streets, the confines of a building with people in it represent the psychological trauma of past abuse, rape and violence. The mental trauma they often experience inside such places forces them to choose the streets with the risks.

What the current treatment regime offers is shelter or a fine. This simplex approach to complex urbanisation, health, housing, economic and social challenges faced by citizens, most of whom have endured extreme trauma, does more harm than good.

The result of this is that it perpetuates the stereotyping of homelessness as a “nuisance that must be removed from the streets”.

We need politicians and practitioners who will work with our fragile reconstruction as a society, and who are committed to doing the hard work and finding long-term sustainable solutions to these complex problems.

I am also not sure that another convention on homelessness will move us any further forwards or that building more shelters is the solution.

But what I am sure about is that we need urgent medical, legal, clinical, housing, economic and social work specialists at street and shelter- level who have been trained in trauma management to help with diagnoses, treatment plans, and proper placements. Only in this way can we begin to help individuals move from the streets.

Fanny, Sam and Roger changed the story of homelessness in 1978. They would want us to do a much better job of that same story than we are doing today.

* Lorenzo A Davids is chief executive of the Community Chest.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus