We need need to put our collective effort, expertise and resources behind solutions that work (in addressing homelessness)- rather than things that simply maintain the status quo or even make the situation worse, says the writer.
We need need to put our collective effort, expertise and resources behind solutions that work (in addressing homelessness)- rather than things that simply maintain the status quo or even make the situation worse, says the writer.

Charting pathway out of homelessness

By Opinion Time of article published Jun 10, 2021

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Jonathan Hopkins

MUCH has been made recently of the use of by-laws in the City of Cape Town to address homelessness.

A legal case has been brought against the City by 11 people experiencing homelessness over the constitutionality of fines they received for by-law infringements.

In response the City has circulated a complaints form for residents and businesses to record the nuisance caused by people experiencing homelessness.

By-laws are not in and of themselves wrong, and the case brought by the 11 people experiencing homelessness against the City of Cape Town is not asking that by-laws per se be scrapped.

Instead, the case spells out clearly how applying the by-laws to people experiencing homelessness is unconstitutional, discriminatory, and doesn’t help with the stated aim of “controlling homelessness”.

That street homelessness is a huge and increasing problem in Cape Town is undisputed by everyone. There are more than 14 000 people experiencing homelessness and the average person has been living on the streets for over 8.5 years.

Homelessness causes a nuisance to residents and business owners in Cape Town and it is a human tragedy for those caught up in it.

However, addressing this by using the existing by-laws to fine homeless people is a fruitless exercise as it assumes a punitive response works, is a costly exercise, and will not solve the problem.

Let me take each in turn:

1. Assumes a punitive response works

A symptom of homelessness in our urban environment is littered streets, people sleeping on the sidewalk and human excrement left in people’s doorways in the morning – all by-law infringements and reasons people experiencing homelessness are being fined.

Fines are meant to be a deterrent. The fact remains however, that homeless people don’t have an alternative to many of the infringements they are fined for.

Ablution facilities are not open outside of working hours meaning it is necessary to use the street as a public toilet. Should we fine people for needing the toilet? There are 2 500 shelter beds and 14 000 homeless people in Cape Town – can we fine someone for sleeping on the street?

The fines therefore do not work, they do not reduce the number of people sleeping on the streets and they do not stop the street being used as a public toilet.

The best way to address these problems is not in a punitive way, but recognising why they are occurring. Better solutions include providing ablution facilities open at least 18-hours a day, lock-up storage available each day, and a safe sleeping space in at least every sub-council based on the MES Bellville model. This would reduce the symptoms of homelessness more than a law-enforcement approach currently does.

2. It is a costly exercise

The Cost of Homelessness in Cape Town found that the societal cost of homelessness is R744m a year with the biggest proportion of spending (45%) going on reactive activities such as cleaning up urban spaces and punitive activities such as the incarceration of people experiencing homelessness.

The study found that the average homeless person is 11 times more likely to be arrested than a member of the general population with the main reasons for arrest related to minor offences such as drug possession, by-law infringements and antisocial behaviour.

There is much we can learn from the experiences of other cities in how not to respond to homelessness. For example, in 2000, Toronto implemented the Safe Streets Act where fines were issued for begging and sleeping in public spaces.

Between 2000 and 2010 over 67 000 tickets were issued which is estimated to have cost the Toronto Police Service more than CA$936 000 (R10.7m) over this time.

Despite a total fine value of over CA$4m, only 0.2% of fines were paid providing a revenue of CA$8,000 given the inability of those fined to pay.

Thus the policy cost over CA$900 000 to implement but most importantly, the unpaid fines left those experiencing homelessness with a debt burden they carried with them when they were housed, making it harder for them to achieve stability.

In Cape Town, if a by-law fine is not paid, the individual is given a summons to appear at a magistrate’s court. Non-appearance leads to a warrant of arrest. This adds unneeded pressure to an already overstretched criminal justice system and criminalises some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

It also further erodes people’s trust in authority, making it even harder to build a relationship with someone to help them overcome the obstacles that keep them living on the streets.

There is the assumption that by making it as hard as possible for someone to live on the street it will force them to return “home”.

However, this falsely assumes that people are choosing to live on the street. Research conducted by HSRC together with Streetscapes and U-turn in 2020 found that among 350 people experiencing homeless across Cape Town, just eight people (2%) gave their only reason for living on the streets as a choice.

The fact they lived on the street was actually due to a myriad other reasons including abuse, substance use disorders, lack of income earning opportunities, family breakdown, a lack of affordable accommodation etc.

Fining for by-law infringements does not address any of these complex factors that have led to homelessness and thus will not lead to people suddenly deciding to move back into the abusive or overcrowded environment they were kicked out of – if that is even an option.

Instead, a punitive approach further entrenches the problem and further increases animosity between the housed and unhoused residents of our city, between the haves and the have-nots.

To my knowledge, the City of Cape Town is the only major City in South Africa that sets money aside each year in its Social Development budget to support people experiencing homelessness. This is to be commended. However, the current schizophrenic response that also relies on a strong punitive approach is counter-productive.

We need to change the way we approach homelessness. We need to stop taking a reactive or punitive response. Instead, a planned, developmental, long-term rehabilitative approach is needed that treats each person living on the street as a human being, finds out why they are in the situation they are in, and provides the right support at the right time. This could be to support overcoming substance use disorders, it could be a work-based rehab programme to involve shelter or transitional housing support.

There are many organisations in Cape Town with successful, proven programmes, for example U-turn, Streetscapes and MES. All focus on long-term developmental programmes that are individually tailored to create good outcomes.

Programmes like these provide pathways out of homelessness and they need to be urgently scaled up. This will both be more cost-effective and will decrease homelessness in the long run.

Homelessness is a very visible but very solvable problem. We need to put our collective effort, expertise and resources behind solutions that work – rather than things that simply maintain the status quo or even make the situation worse. There is life after homelessness.

Hopkins is the programme director at U-turn Homeless Ministries.

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