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Why the homeless refuse to be housed at shelters

Carlos Mesquita shares personal accounts from homeless people across Cape Town who share why they refuse to be housed at shelters. Picture: African News Agency(ANA)

Carlos Mesquita shares personal accounts from homeless people across Cape Town who share why they refuse to be housed at shelters. Picture: African News Agency(ANA)

Published Jul 12, 2022


In one of my first columns, I tried to explain why, if I were to become homeless again, I would opt for living on the streets as opposed to going to a shelter.

This was so people would realise those living on the streets are not necessarily being difficult when they refuse that kind of assistance.

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But despite all I have written and said on this topic, it remains a question in my many discussions with the public and government officials.

“Why don’t homeless people want to go into shelters?”

And in this instance I am talking about the rare occasion that there is shelter space available and that it is conveniently located for them in terms of community and employment opportunity and sustainability.

So this time, I am going to let homeless people answer this question.

Jason has been on the streets for only six months and stays at a shelter.

Ridwaan has been homeless for 14 years and has stayed at seven shelters.

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Sam has been on the streets for eight years and has stayed at nine shelters, having worked at two.

Michael was on the streets for 13 years and is now accommodated and employed. Emily has been on the streets for 21 years.

Jason: “Shelters are filled with pensioners, disabled persons, gang members that are drug addicts, and runners, alcoholics and lazy people who have been homeless forever. They will try to keep you up nights and steal your ID and meagre supplies because you’re a tourist in their land.”

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Ridwaan: “Staff at homeless shelters treat homeless people like farm animals they are milking for money. Shelters are not a place to fix your problems.

“They are a place for you to stay imprisoned in chronic homelessness and for staff to make money by not taking care of you.”

Sam: “Shelters have bed bugs. You are not allowed to take your pet and / or your partner with you. And if you are gay, make sure you are in drag and willing to sleep around, which people and even your sponsors are not going to understand.”

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Jason: “Shelters have check-in times and curfews, and work duty days. These are only waived at the discretion of the staff, and they will not put your employment at a premium.”

Michael: “Long-term residents have relationships with staff. If you’re not chronically homeless, you’re at a huge disadvantage. If you want to look for and actually get a job, you’re considered uppity, and even the social worker is not eager to help. They are looking for repeat customers, not “troublemakers”.

Emily: “Do not ever give money, food or items for protection fees. These will only escalate, and you will soon realise those you are paying are the ring leaders of those you seek protection from.”

Michael: “If you are homeless and want to come off the streets, try to get yourself into an independent, long-term place which has a reputation for helping homeless people by treating them like humans and actively providing them with opportunities.

Unfortunately, these are scarce and usually don’t last very long due to lack of financial support.”

Sam: “Shelters are a good source of income, with the state paying per bed per night and 100-year leases at ridiculously low annual fees, and they are also recipients of all sorts of grants, donations and campaigns.”

Ridwaan: “You will be threatened, sometimes assaulted, treated poorly, dehumanised, harassed and inconvenienced.”

Michael: “If you want to survive a shelter, DO NOT BE SIDETRACKED! Keep your head down, ignore the noise, sleep with your wallet and keys on you, go to the library or internet shop, and apply for jobs, take any job offered – the worse the better because lack of address, phone and sometimes IDs and difficulty getting to work or working certain hours will make your first job hard.

“Get this job and work it until you can pay some rent at some better place for people who work. Continue till you are out. Ignore the noise and persevere.”

Emily: “Shelters are not conducive to you becoming part of society again. They are the main reason for the growth in the number of chronically homeless people, as they move you from one to the other every three or six months to end up back at the first, to start again.”

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. He can be reached at [email protected]

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

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