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Homelessness: Offering temporary solutions but expecting long-term results

Tents were erected at the Culemborg Safe Space for Cape Town's homeless people during the Covid-19 lockdown after they were removed from the Strandfontein site. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Tents were erected at the Culemborg Safe Space for Cape Town's homeless people during the Covid-19 lockdown after they were removed from the Strandfontein site. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Jul 19, 2022


This column is long overdue and is one of those that is going to get several people hot under the collar again, but we have to face facts or we are just wasting time and money saying we are helping the homeless.

It’s a two-part column that focuses on what can be seen as two separate services offered to the homeless. But are they separate and different?

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The unexpected and unprecedented response to my column last week necessitated me to address these issues as I realised there are many people not acquainted with the basic facts.

Let’s this week focus on the one half of the homeless service provision scenario: the accommodating half, in other words, the shelters.

They have taken a bashing from myself and others long enough now, and so I will not repeat details as to why they are so often rejected by the homeless.

The shelter model favoured for funding by the provincial government – and thus obviously well placed to receive City grants in aid funding – does not focus on keeping any individual accommodated for a sufficiently long period to realistically provide the individual with an opportunity to deal with the issues that might have resulted in their homelessness or to address any form of rehabilitation that may be required, to even consider the potential of successful reintegration back into society. What’s on offer is not holistic, and it’s not sustainable.

This is just the way this model works. Not only in South Africa but all over the world.

The current model has been the preferred model of the province for over 30 years.

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And although it is a long-standing failure that keeps people imprisoned in perpetual homelessness, it was only exposed as a failed system because of Covid-19 and how the City's Department of Social Development (advised by our longest-standing and experienced shelter provider) decided to accommodate the homeless for the duration of the pandemic.

This afforded the public their first glimpse into what homelessness looks like in Cape Town. What went on at Strandfontein was not new to us, but it certainly was news to the public.

It exposed not only its magnitude but also the inhumane and substandard lives that homeless people are forced to live, both in shelters and on the streets.

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The growing unhappiness about this state of affairs collided with the anger of those that would like nothing better than to wave a magic wand and be rid of “the filth”.

But irrespective of motive, all agree on one thing, including the homeless, the streets are not a good option in terms of being sheltered.

Demands for a better system that sees fewer chronic homeless people on our streets and is more effective and sustainable in keeping them off the streets have snowballed, and the City, now under pressure and fortunate enough to have a savvy young mayor and seemingly compassionate Mayco member heading that portfolio, is now, in good faith, I am sure, unknowingly expecting a well-entrenched system of temporary assistance and lack of sustainability to provide the permanent solutions the public is demanding. This is just not possible.

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The hypocrisy in the sector itself is unbelievable.

The bashing has thus far been unfairly and almost entirely focused on the provision of accommodation.

Do not for a moment think that in saying that, I, in any way or form, support the accommodation model that we, as a city and province, have exclusively adopted and funded for the past 30-odd years. I have been, and remain, one of its most vocal critics.

Our accommodation model for the homeless is long past its due date and needs to be addressed and changed in terms of more realistic bed space capacity and types of accommodation.

Next week’s column will focus on the hypocrisy of the other aspect of service provision to the homeless.

I will discuss why I use the word “hypocritical” and why I am challenging these service providers to take a good look at the services they offer and to react with as much passion and concern as they did towards the services provided in terms of accommodation when these were revealed and exposed. Inquisitive?


* 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. He can be reached at [email protected]

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

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