Stop criminalising the homeless

Carlos Mesquita writes that it is imperative that we not only quantify but also qualify those who are living on the streets of Cape Town so that we know who these individuals are and what services they require to leave homelessness behind. Photographer: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Carlos Mesquita writes that it is imperative that we not only quantify but also qualify those who are living on the streets of Cape Town so that we know who these individuals are and what services they require to leave homelessness behind. Photographer: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Jan 20, 2024

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Last week, I wrote about the collection of data as a first step towards reducing the number of people living on our streets.

It is imperative that we not only quantify but also qualify those who are living on the streets of Cape Town so that we know who these individuals are and what services they require to leave homelessness behind.

It’s no longer good enough to assume that these are all people who have made bad or wrong choices and thus shift the blame onto those who land up living on the streets and absolve all the societal ills that force people without any other choice onto the streets by providing temporary and inadequate sleeping quarters for night-time with no sustainable interventions.

As with most assumptions, this one has been proven wrong and we have to start accepting that the reasons for most people living on the streets are structural in nature rather than through bad personal choices.

Hence, our one-size-fits-all approach of offering entry phase and temporary shelter, with no plan to rehabilitate or reintegrate these individuals, is contributing to, rather than addressing the problem.

This fact has resulted in those who have not been provided with the services they require at these shelters and safe spaces, being forced back onto the streets and eventually becoming resistant to this type of merry-go-round to nowhere so-called offer of assistance.

This brings me to the next issue we have to address if we are to reduce the number of those living on our streets: the criminalisation of people living on the streets.

It’s also not just the attitudes and how homeless people are treated in shelters and safe spaces, or when they’re seeking life-saving services from state-funded institutions that are in effect criminalising people living on the streets. It’s also the spikes and stones and adjustment to public park benches.

It’s when communities make sitting or sleeping in public spaces illegal. It’s arresting people experiencing homelessness for simply trying to survive. It’s enforcing by-laws and seeking court orders without offering sustainable alternatives, which I believe are the cruellest types of homeless criminalisation.

The involuntary and more often than not illegal removal of homeless people or encampments often results in loss of belongings and shelter (tents), or even arrests. During these actions by-law enforcement, often conducted at the break of dawn or in the twilight hours, homeless people race to save their belongings.

If a homeless person living in their car has their vehicle towed away, they become street homeless. An already vulnerable person is made more vulnerable through this type of intervention.

A homeless person can lose their only form of shelter, their tent, and all their belongings, in a matter of minutes. And it’s not just losing critical items such as blankets, clothing, and medications. They also lose documentation and items, such as photographs of their families, birth certificates, and identification, making it much harder to secure services in the future.

What’s worse? It has no positive benefit whatsoever. Sure, some might suggest it’s necessary to “clean up the streets”, but homeless people and their belongings are not trash. And forcefully moving homeless people from one area only moves them again into the next area, and is nothing but cruel. There is simply no justification for it.

It has been proven that most of the forced removals of homeless encampments carried out during the past 12 months were overwhelmingly unsuccessful at getting people into permanent housing or temporary shelter.

Of the 12 removals that were monitored by Outsider in Cape Town and surrounds that were carried out in 2023, of the close to 400 people affected, only 39 went into temporary shelter and of those, only two remain accommodated at a shelter.

Instead of wasting ratepayers’ money on these hugely unsuccessful and unsustainable interventions, we should utilise this money on compassionate and tangible solutions that help us end homelessness instead of making it worse.

We must stop punishing homeless people for simply trying to survive. Let’s not make their life harder, scarier, and more traumatic than it already is.

Being homeless isn’t a crime! Not having a place to sit, sleep, or eat is not a crime. Being poor isn’t a crime. And we are no closer to solving homelessness if we continue to criminalise homelessness. We need housing, not handcuffs, to end the criminalisation of homelessness.

We must advocate for more housing and support services and stop criminalising homelessness at a municipal level. At the same time, we must put pressure on our provincial and national legislators. Your voice can help end homelessness.

* Carlos Mesquita.

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

Cape Argus

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