The City of Cape Town only has itself to blame for ‘tent cities’ for the homeless

Friends sharing a tent at the new homeless shelter that is set up under the bridge in Cape Town. File picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

Friends sharing a tent at the new homeless shelter that is set up under the bridge in Cape Town. File picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jan 21, 2023


It's been a hectic start to the new year in terms of those living on the streets of Cape Town.

And it all boils down to one thing: Every action has an equal but opposite reaction and my advice to the City of Cape Town (both its political as well as its administrative heads), especially those working in social development, is: Please think things through carefully before you act.

Cape Town, its residents, its political leaders, its service providers and especially those living on the streets are all paying the price of the mistakes and errors in judgement made by a handful of people with regards to Strandfontein.

Did you know that besides being the single biggest donor of tents to those living on the streets, the City itself is responsible for the sudden increase in the presence of “tent cities” and the growing number of encampments in Cape Town?

The very things they are referring to as problematic and unacceptable and are trying to get rid of due to complaints from their wealthy voters are precisely the things that they created.

They have already spent hundreds of thousands of rand in court appeals and law-enforcement interventions to get rid of what they started. Now they are again approaching the courts, obtaining evictions under the guise of moving individuals to transitional safe spaces, which are yet to be opened.

It’s time to stop, be honest, re-evaluate and move on to a better strategy.

When the public noticed how many more people seemed to be living on the streets than before, the

City’s spin doctors went into overdrive laying the blame on Covid-19. While Covid-19 did result in some people losing their jobs and even their homes, they were not the reason for the influx of chronic homeless.

It was a decision on how to handle a situation at the Strandfontein homeless camp that caused this “explosion”.

When the court cases became a little overwhelming and public opinion had turned against the City on Strandfontein, it decided to close the camp just six weeks after it had been opened it at an apparent cost in excess of R42 million – for the tents, running water, sewerage, hot water bathing facilities, catering and medical facilities and screening for Covid-19.

There was just one challenge. Where were they going to accommodate these 1 495 people after the camp closed down?

On the day the City was notified of the camp’s imminent closure, the Social Development Department and its trusted service providers colluded to tell the general public the same lie they have been telling all along but this time on a large scale.

Usually they just say that there are always vacant beds available at the shelters and it is the homeless who don’t want to take up the opportunity.

This time they said there was going to be no problem as the existing shelters and safe spaces would be able to accommodate all those left at Strandfontein and those that didn’t make use of the opportunity “wanted to be on the streets”.

People were told they needed to decide whether they wanted to leave or wait to go to shelters once the camp had closed. Most, of course, chose to leave. It was month end – people wanted to access their grants and the City had known this would be the case and it worked in their favour.

We, at tent No 2, said “No!” We wanted to be accommodated at the new Culemborg Safe Space they had promised us.

This became the reason for me becoming complainant No 1 in the first case where people living on the street took the City to court and won!

Suddenly they were saying Culemborg was no longer available as an option and we were told we could leave the next day if we wanted to.

The real story was that if we insisted on going to Culemborg, they would be over-capacitated as they had assumed our 168 would eventually agree to go back to the streets. We didn't, we started consulting a lawyer.

We instructed the lawyer to go to court and insist on the City keeping to its word to accommodate us at a new safe space to become the Culemborg Safe Space 2.

On the day the City got news of the first positive case of Covid-19, despite our demand for them to stop releasing untested people back onto the streets, they continued! More than 1 000 people were dropped off wherever they asked to be or released to walk back to Cape Town.

One of those released from Strandfontein with a mattress and tent landed up in Durbanville with six others, which was their location of choice.

Last week he was evicted from the spot where he had been dropped off.

The same can be said for the tent city in Sea Point and the many other groups in the CBD.

Even we, the 168 that had won our case against the City and were meant to be accommodated at the new Culemborg Safe Space, were dumped back on the streets. The public was told we had chosen to go back on the streets. But we set up our tents outside Culemborg – waiting.

Imagine looking through the Clear-Vu fencing to see what was meant to be our home, not even being allowed to use the portaloos having to relieve ourselves in the bushes.

The rains started and we were rescued by Community Chest who took us into their building in Bree Street.

It took us another two months of threatening the City with more court action. Eventually, 33 of us moved into Our House, 96 (all the City could accommodate in Culemborg) were accommodated there. The rest are still outside looking in. And that is how the tent cities and encampments began in Cape Town.

* Carlos Mesquita.

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

Cape Argus

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