My first column for 2024 last week was titled: “2024 should be a year for tackling Homelessness.”
In this spirit, I am dedicating my first few columns to discussing how we could do this effectively.
Let’s clean the slate.
My first suggestion would be: Let us find out how many people we have living on our streets by doing an accurate count and let us not only quantify but qualify those experiencing homelessness.
We cannot even begin to think of offering services that will be effective and sustainably reduce the numbers of people living on our streets if we are not aware of what we are dealing with.
I can guarantee you that neither the National Government nor the Provincial Government and the City of Cape Town, who each boast a Department of Social Development, have any clue as to how many, or who and what they are dealing with.
While most studies of homelessness conducted in South Africa thus far simply seek to quantify the issue through snapshot counts or using census data, what is required to truly understand homelessness and those experiencing homelessness, is a study that utilises representative sampling, where a wide range of people experiencing homelessness are interviewed in depth about their experience – how they became homeless, what that experience has been like and what services they require to exit homelessness.
Representative samples help remove biases from studies.
Counts done to date of people experiencing homelessness in South Africa have used small samples of people who fit certain characteristics and those undertaking the counts then try to extrapolate the conclusions drawn as representative of everyone’s experience of homelessness.
This practice, also known as sampling bias, can lead to outcomes that systematically favour specific outcomes.
The studies done thus far purport to show that a majority of un-housed people are either mentally ill, addicted to drugs, or are lazy and do not want to work.
Even though most of these studies suffer from a sampling bias, they are still used to create narratives that justify the ill-treatment of un-housed people and the criminalisation of homelessness nationwide.
However, Everybody Counts, which is an in-depth study and assessment of those experiencing homelessness currently being conducted by an independent organisation, Outsider, has found that these narratives are untrue.
It has, for example, found in a preliminary sample of 3 500 individuals experiencing homelessness in Cape Town, which is a significantly larger sample than any other ever used in South Africa before, that 77% of participants lost their housing in Cape Town despite the popular narrative that un-housed people migrated to Cape Town from the Eastern Cape and other areas for better living conditions and were already un-housed upon arrival.
The study has also found that 58% of the participants were actively looking for work, even though some people believe un-housed people just want to lie around outside all day.
The ability to highlight the human experience is also an important benefit of using a representative sample. This approach allows you to understand the “why” behind their situation.
Using a representative sample can also help researchers, academics and policy makers draw more comprehensive conclusions about homelessness, which can go a long way to helping service providers design programmes to meet the needs of un-housed people.
* Carlos Mesquita.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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