A homeless man sleeps next to his belongings in the winter sun outside the CTICC building in the CBD. Photo: Henk Kruger

People want to help the homeless, but they must learn how, writes Pat Eddy.

The Cape winter can be merciless for even the toughest Capetonians, but for people living on the streets, it makes their daily battle even more of a challenge.

Tough economic times and the lure of moving to a city where streets are paved with supposed opportunities draws countless hopefuls to downtown districts across the world.

Likewise, here, we see people arriving, desperate not so much to make their fortune but to scrape together enough to support their families.

Sadly, some of these people find themselves on the street where it becomes increasingly difficult for them to reintegrate themselves into society. We have many people with us in the Cape Town CBD, for example, whom we refer to as the chronic homeless – those who have lived on the street for many years.

A survey conducted a few years ago, in collaboration with the Cape Town Partnership, the City of Cape Town and the Central City Improvement District (CCID), revealed about 560 people living on the CBD’s streets and immediate surrounds.

This number, when you hear it for the first time, sounds shocking, but the reality is the situation has remained constant for years.

The need to help street people is a real challenge, and there are many Capetonians who are sympathetic to their plight.

But for those of us involved in social development, it becomes intensely personal, as each street person (to us, they are our clients) carries with them a very personal tale of struggle, desperation and frequently experience emotional, physical and substance abuse.

Children often end up on the street after running away from an abusive family life to seek relative safety on the streets.

When relationships break down, one partner is often forced to move out with no place to live. In many cases, this is a woman.

Others find themselves on the streets as a result of physical or mental health problems.

Others still have been in prison and are discharged directly on to the streets, where opportunities for reintegration and a legitimate lifestyle are few and far between.

Street people the world over are often labelled as alcoholics or drug addicts, and while many street people become caught up in cycles of substance abuse, this is often the result of their situation, not the cause – a way to cope with being on the street.

A big city may seem to offer attractions, but ways in which street people can make a decent living are few and their income is minimal.

A vicious cycle is created in which few street people are able to earn enough (or upskill themselves sufficiently) to escape from their predicament.

Feeding someone for a day does not help them tomorrow, so the work done by NGOs and social services in trying to assist people with a hand-up rather than a handout is critical if these cycles are ever to be broken.

The essential social ingredient these organisations require is for the public to understand the need to give responsibly.

This is particularly relevant when it comes to children, for whom the necessary legal procedures (in terms of the Children’s Act) and thus the social services and systems are in place to either reunite a child with his or her family when possible or, when not, to assist them to a place of safety.

The solution, however, is not that straightforward for adults as the agreement to be helped in any way must come from the individual.

Where a window of opportunity does lie is when the individual has only recently found themselves on the street (for example, after a marital breakup or loss of a job), and the early intervention by a field or social worker can make all the difference in the world to set that person back on course.

This situation is, however, the exception and the work of anyone involved in social development and dealing with street people is challenging at the best of times.

The NGOs we work with as well as the services provided by the government are stretched beyond capacity.

For example, there are more than 30 field workers throughout the metropole all competing with each other just to find bed space in shelters. There is a critical shortage of shelter accommodation to assist even the most willing clients and the current number of beds available does not meet the needs of people living on the streets.

And even when beds are found, they could be far away from the people who need them. For example, an occasional bed space may be free in Paarl or Ceres, but this doesn’t help someone on the streets of the CBD who sees Cape Town as home.

Then there are challenges around the issues of human rights and understanding basic truths such as the fact that it is not illegal to be poor and we cannot criminalise poverty. It’s also about understanding that not all homeless beg, nor are all people who beg homeless.

There are Big Issue and other vendors and car guards, for instance, who earn money through other legitimate means, but who also live on the streets.

Plus there is the challenge that every caring person must face, at that point when someone who is clearly in need asks you for your small change. Do you give directly as a handout or do you give instead via campaigns such as Give Responsibly that supports the incredible work done by the NGOs who help the homeless?

The CCID’s own version of this campaign benefits six NGOs with whom we work directly in the CBD and that deal with both children and adults.

We would encourage Capetonians who care to support the work these organisations do in trying to give a hand-up rather than a handout.

* Pat Eddy is the CCID’s social development manager and a registered social worker.

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

Cape Argus