Election season: More (empty?) promises are being made about resolving homelessness

A homeless man sits on a rubble outside at voting station in Ward 88 in Philippi. Picture: Phando Jikelo

A homeless man sits on a rubble outside at voting station in Ward 88 in Philippi. Picture: Phando Jikelo

Published Apr 17, 2024


As election time rolls around again, political promises are in the air. It's a good time for us to revisit the promises made during the last round of elections.

During the 2021 municipal elections, homelessness was, of course, the flavour of the month. Covid-19 had exposed the fact that the City of Cape Town and NGOs, like the Haven, had been lying about there being enough shelter space when, in fact, there was none.

The City had to open several big spaces to house all who were roughing it out on the streets. This quickly revealed that the City had no clue about the number of homeless people.

The now-notorious Strandfontein camp had also exposed the City's inhumane treatment of this vulnerable group and shown how it prioritises punishment rather than social interventions to manage the crisis.

It became such an issue that even I, a then-recently re-homed homeless man (I had been off the streets for a year), was offered a fully funded political party for the homeless and the opportunity to run for ward councillor in Sea Point, the Good Party, which was the only party considering a policy on homelessness at the time. My coming third, having done virtually no campaigning, spoke to how seriously residents looked at the issue.

But since winning the municipal elections in Cape Town and despite the DA’s new mayor, Geordin Hill-Lewis, initially saying all the right things and making all the right noises, this quickly proved to be a strategy, rather than a sincere attempt to understand and address the issue.

For the first time, a voice from within the administration was admitting that the shelters were all full most of the time. He was saying that under his watch, the punitive approach would be replaced by a care approach and that the City would be investing in opening new safe spaces. He even went on to use the word “transitional” when referring to the new safe spaces the City would be opening. I personally congratulated him and offered my assistance.

His words weren't even cold when word got out that he was seeking court evictions for all the homeless encampments on city-owned land that had an economical benefit in terms of tourism for the City. When the court cases took a little too long to process and pressure mounted from his voters, he quickly turned a blind eye to illegal removals that were taking place all over the Atlantic Seaboard and the CBD.

The City went as far as issuing by law-infringement notices and threatening ultimatums such as the loss of rental contract to the company renting land from the City for the tennis academy in Three Anchor Bay – as a means of getting the organisation to join the city in petitioning for the evictions.

In order to get public support for the evictions, the City and its agents would, and continue to, despite any lack of concrete evidence, perpetuate the myths about the homeless being criminals, drug addicts, violent and dangerous. It does this by publicly blaming any crime committed in an area on the homeless. The accusation has often proved false.

The City also perpetuates the myth that most people living on the streets refuse assistance because they object to rules at shelters. And so, the public starts viewing the homeless as potentially harmful and ungrateful.

The new mayor's scene is set: the new, young, eager, hard-working mayor is doing all he can to help those living on the streets, by obtaining budget and building safe spaces yet the ungrateful homeless keep on plundering and thieving.

And two years later as we go into another election, the City has ensured the public is convinced and reassured that it is doing all it can to “help the homeless”, yet the homeless don’t want help. They want to be on the streets to harass people and commit crime.

Yet, taking a closer look at the facts, we find that during his term and despite all his promises, the mayor has opened only one extra safe space, and that was last week, again just before the elections.

Between January and March 2024, the City also evicted, without alternatives being offered, close to 1000 people from unused buildings within the CBD, especially Commercial Street.

The City’s lack of success is contained in its reports in which it proudly communicates that of the 3 500 referrals to shelters and safe spaces done by its field workers, it managed to reintegrate or reunify 112 – on a budget of R94 million.

The latest count puts the numbers of those living on the streets of the CBD as having shot up from 700 in 2019 to almost 8 000.

It also sees the national government, for the first time, saying it is on track to develop the country’s first policy on homelessness. This is long overdue and I hope it doesn't turn out to be an empty promise. It also sees the Good Party going into the election with a policy on homelessness.

If homelessness is important to you, ensure the party you support has not paid only lip service to the issue but has ensured it has been addressed in its manifesto.

* Carlos Mesquita is an activist for the homeless and a researcher working in the Western Cape Legislature for the GOOD Party.

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

Cape Argus

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