In my column this week, I will attempt to answer a number of questions that have landed on my desk over the past couple of weeks.
I’ll answer questions that are similar or have similar responses in order to provide as detailed an answer as possible and, in the process, try to make the general public aware of the connections between certain issues in the sector.
So please, if you have any questions or issues you would like me to answer or give your opinion on, contact the Cape Argus, or e-mail me directly at: [email protected]
1. How many unhoused people are there in Cape Town? That is the question I was asked the most, and to answer that question, I would have to first answer two other frequently asked questions:
2. Who are the homeless?
3. Does living in a shack mean you are homeless?
Unfortunately, the answer is “No!” to the last question, which means for the purpose of the answers I give here, we are only taking into consideration those living on the streets that conform to those the City and Province view as “homeless” and to whom they offer services.
The City only considers those living on the streets of the CBD and the other big economic nodes where there are economic and social repercussions to deal with as a result of people living on the streets.
So those people living in shacks or those living as backyard dwellers are, for lack of a national policy on those experiencing homelessness, to all intents and purposes not seen as a social development mandate but rather as a Department of Human Settlements mandate.
That is the first mistake in addressing this issue, because the individuals living in shacks and people’s backyards are experiencing the same challenges as those viewed by the City as “the unhoused”, and the last couple of months have shown an influx of these individuals who are not seen as homeless by the City moving into the CBD and Bellville for economic reasons and they then by the City’s own definition become part of the challenge.
The second question that needs answering is who the unhoused actually are. We have the elderly, the disabled, those with mental health challenges and the LGBTQIA+ youth who should not be living on the streets.
Their needs are pretty straightforward, and they should all be living in permanent or at least semi-permanent accommodation options that also offers specialised services designed for these groups to enjoy a good quality of life. They should not be in shelters.
Unfortunately, our national government has, in 30 years of democracy, failed those that are most vulnerable.
Now to answer the first question: Reliable statistics about those living on the streets in South Africa are non-existent. But in Cape Town alone, figures from a study by service providers in 2020 suggest the metro has upwards of 14,000 people living on the streets.
According to the Western Cape Provincial Government and City, the last count done in 2019 reflected 4862 individuals living on the streets and in shelters in the whole of Cape town. The report by the City goes on to claim that 700 of those are living in the CBD.
Of course, the latest figures look very different:
We started a drive to count and assess the homeless in 2023. Entitled “Everybody Counts 2023”, we recently managed to count the CBD. The number now stands at 7011.
The count I initiated is ongoing. Based on the all my interactions and the trend we are noticing emerge, I would say that the City figure will be between 20-25 000.
4. What are the factors that lead to the growth of unhoused communities in Cape Town?
There are many reasons for people landing up living on the streets.
The main contributing factors to people living on the streets are: stagnant income, unemployment, lack of affordable housing, lack of affordable mental health care and addiction services, racial inequality, domestic violence, family conflict, systemic failures but ultimately, it's our inability as a society to prevent these things from happening.
We have seen a huge growth in the elderly and LGBTQIA+ communities recently, and this is mostly due to rejection by families and can and should be addressed.
I decided to answer these four questions first, as they are the questions I get asked the most and also because we can’t really understand and work on ending chronic homelessness if we do not have this information first.
I hope these question-and-answer columns will help all of you get a better and more accurate understanding of the challenges that both the unhoused face as well as those trying to positively impact their lives.
* Carlos Mesquita.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.