Two weeks ago, I focused on a few interviews that I had conducted with homeless people to give you a feeling of what it is like to live as a homeless person and what results from this experience.
This week, I have decided to take a more summarised look at a mass of interactions I have had to give you a glimpse at the extent of homelessness that so few are aware of.
Experiences of homelessness differ, depending on the individual. My own experience and the stories I have heard in the last year and a half do not support the stereotype that homelessness is an individual problem.
There is a need for more services in accessible areas, as well as safe and affordable housing. Providing adequate services can restore dignity and a sense of citizenship.
A large proportion of homelessness in the suburbs is hidden. This means that individuals are forced to live on the outskirts of society.
In the suburbs, people who are experiencing homelessness are most likely to be part of the hidden homeless population.
This includes individuals who are staying or moving between friends or family temporarily or due to a lack of affordable housing.
Those who experience homelessness and live outside, largely live on the mountains, in the forests and down cliffs for safety and to avoid the law enforcement agencies.
This has, to some degree, changed during the Covid-19 pandemic as homeless people tried to access provisions from popular places where service providers were offering assistance but, unfortunately, the benefit achieved there is already being eroded by the actions of the law enforcement agencies.
Given the prevalence of hidden homelessness, the majority of people in Cape Town were, until the outbreak of Covid-19, fairly unaware of its extent on their doorstep. They are also unaware of the narratives that accompany homelessness.
Most still believe the myths and the narratives that unapologetic politicians have popularised.
I have spoken to homeless people as young as 12 living on their own or in groups but without any family member being involved in their care and as old as an 89-year-old man living alone in a forest who has been homeless since the age of 24!
There are a variety of reasons for people ending up homeless.
Some of the stories recounted during my chats provide details of being unable to afford housing, having been a victim of a crime, including domestic abuse, chronic illness and disability, and having lost employment.
The experience of homelessness has been described to me as a feeling of “being trapped in poverty” and being seen as “not being important”. Along with this came a struggle against violence, sexual exploitation and the loss of identity.
People have also expressed struggles against substandard housing and minimum wage standards every time that they have tried to uplift themselves.
Yet, despite all this, most of those I have spoken to are people who still hope for an escape from homelessness into full citizenship.
The major challenge in achieving this seems to be a lack of support and resources.
But, most of those I have spoken to still have hope for the future. This was driven by different motivations, including community, friends (as I reported in a previous column and personal ambitions).
Policymakers have no choice but to ensure that they consider the hidden homeless population when counting those living in homelessness. They must also listen to individuals’ stories to fully understand homelessness.
Furthermore, alternatives to the current sheltering system of the homeless and current social housing should be considered to address the large backlog.
* 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 Media.