Criminalisation won’t end homelessness
by Carlos Mesquita
The cornerstone of South Africa’s democracy is the right of citizens to make their wishes known through the election process. Yet persons experiencing homelessness are consistently one of the most poorly represented groups when it comes to voter turnout.
It is understandable why homeless people face numerous barriers which have limited their participation in the election process.
Many potential homeless voters may not have the appropriate identification documents (especially in Cape Town where law enforcement still makes it their duty to remove IDs and personal documentation during raids on homeless people) to register to vote. They may also lack the resources to educate themselves about candidates or may not be able to get to the voting stations where they are registered to vote on election day.
Most aren’t even aware that you don’t need to have a home in order to vote.
This is one of the campaigns that I am hoping the new proposed homeless sector network, of which I spoke of in last week’s column, will take on. We need to assist in educating, and making voting accessible and safe for, the homeless, to ensure they overcome the obstacles that have traditionally prevented them from becoming both registered and active voters.
We have to ensure a dedication to principles of equity and equal access to public resources to ensure that homeless individuals are protected against laws targeting homeless people for their lack of housing and not their behaviour and restrictions on the use of public space.
We also have to ensure that they are granted privacy and property protections, allowed to vote and feel safe in their community without harassment.
Homeless people should also have access to shelter, social services, legal counsel and quality education for their children.
This brings me to the second campaign that I have proposed for the emerging network to tackle, “Homes not Handcuffs”, a campaign to address the criminalisation of people experiencing homelessness and the affordable housing crisis in Cape Town.
By making it illegal for people to sit, sleep and even eat in public places – this, despite the absence of sufficient housing or even shelter and other basic resources – we are making innocent people criminals. And in so doing costing millions in taxpayers’ money. These laws and policies also violate constitutional rights, and create arrest records, and fines, which stand in the way of homeless people getting jobs or housing.
This act of criminalisation is not working to end homelessness. It is also one of the reasons why the “Housing First” model is the best model with which to address homelessness in this country.
Society must realise each petty arrest is a huge financial burden for the taxpayer. Homeless people have no physical address so even for a misdemeanour they are not automatically sent to Pollsmoor to “await trial” which can be up to six months of costs to the state. And by the time that our “hungry homeless shoplifter” is released from the “College of Knowledge” (Pollsmoor’s other name), he will belong to a gang and have upskilled to car hijacker.
This brings me to the third campaign contained in my proposal, advocating for a “Homeless Court” for non-serious offences which social workers can vouch are committed as a result of the lived reality (homelessness) of the perpetrator.
Homelessness is reduced in communities that focus on housing, and not those that focus on criminalisation.
As more individuals and nonprofits continue to bring awareness about this issue, the general public will realise that criminalisation is not the answer to ending homelessness. The time is now to educate and advocate for justice and housing.
Feeling enlightened? SO AM I
* Carlos Mesquita and a handful of others formed HAC (the Homeless Action Committee) that lobbies for the rights of the homeless. He also manages Our House in Oranjezicht, which is powered by the Community Chest.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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