Cape mulls ‘community villages’ for homeless

By Daneel Knoetze Time of article published Apr 11, 2014

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In a controversial bid to reduce the number of people living on Cape Town’s streets, the city council is considering the establishment of “community villages” outside the city centre.

Those who refuse to go voluntarily will be picked up, tried for by-law infringements and forcibly removed – a detail that has outraged activists and street people.

The City of Cape Town envisages that these facilities, for which a pilot site in Philippi has already been identified, will help to rehabilitate street people. There will be skills training (to help people find employment) and services such as psychiatric care and drug rehabilitation programmes.

JP Smith, mayoral committee member for safety and security, and Suzette Little, the mayoral committee member for social development, have punted the proposal as a move towards a caring and supportive approach in dealing with street people.

Smith presented it as an alternative to a “law enforcement” approach, which sees street people being arrested for by-law infringements (sleeping on the street for example) and then “recycled”, via community courts and holding cells, back on to the street.

Yet, the Street People’s Forum, a platform which aligns NGOs working with street people, dimissed Smith’s claim. Forum convener Greg Andrews considers the community village proposal, with punitive connotations associated with “courts, sentencing and secure facilities”, as a threat to the basic human rights of street people.

He was unsurprised by the proposal, however, saying that it was in line with the city’s general “complete ignorance” of issues that affected street people and how to assist them.

“These proposals have come up before, most recently a few years ago under the idea of modelling such facilities on the kibbutz system in Israel.

“What the city fails to appreciate is that most of the people who live on the streets have done so for years, decades even. Forced removals would be a gross abuse of their human rights, because most of them are not criminals. Many have good relations with the communities where they live and provide valuable services (recycling, scouting for burglars and car guarding).”

Andrews also argued that removing established street people would aggravate rather than alleviate crime and anti-social behaviour, as newcomers and opportunists moved into “the vacuum on the street”.

Rosie Mudge, a resident in Vredehoek, spoke of the friendship she had developed with a man, Hendrik, who lives at the entrance of her former apartment building. He was friendly, helpful, and knowing that he would be there late at night would give her a sense of security, Mudge said.

“He would take out all the bins on rubbish collection days – that was quite helpful. We would sometimes help him out with some food.

“But he seemed quite independent. So, I focused more on just building a friendship and acknowledging his personhood. I imagine that being homeless can be quite an isolating experience.”

Contrary to popular belief, a recent Cape Central Improvement District (CCID) survey found that the number of people living on the streets in the city bowl, around 600, has remained fairly consistent in recent years. The community consists mostly of people who have lived on the streets for years. These people consider the street and the communities in which they live to be their homes, and would simply not leave voluntarily, Andrews said.

Activist and Street People’s Forum member Shaun Shelly said that forced removals to a community village would be “Orwellian” and consistent with a general move by the local and provincial government to “sanitise” the city.

The proposal would move the problem of street people “out of sight and mind” and not acknowledge the societal ills which drove people on to the street. Instead, he suggested that money be diverted to shelters and existing services in the city that helped street people, “something which the government refuses to do”.

Social Development MEC Albert Fritz has, on numerous occasions, said the government needed to make it as “uncomfortable as possible for people living on the street”.

Among the street people, there were mixed reactions. Those who had not been on the street for more than a few months seemed receptive to the idea of a safe place where they would be fed and receive skills training. Those who had lived on the street for a long time, were vehemently opposed.

Many of the concerns raised were sent in an inquiry to Smith and Little’s office. In her response, Little said the city proposed that community villages complement existing street people programmes and services.

“In taking this forward, the city is preparing a proper business case, including looking at best practice internationally, including the potential pros and cons of such a centre; considering how this will fit into our current street people programme; and costing of a proposed site at Schaapkraal,” she said, adding that the costs related to zoning, a draft plan of the village, day-to-day running costs and programme costs.

“Based on this, the city can then make an informed decision on the way forward.”

Hishaam Mohamed, head of the Department of Justice in the province, confirmed that a magistrate would hypothetically have the power to order an individual to attend a “diversion programme” at a secure facility.

“A court’s finding will obviously depend on the particulars of the case against an individual,” he said.

The plan elicited a positive response from some people living on the streets during a quick snap poll by the Cape Argus:

* Chantel Williams, Salt River: “To have a roof over my head would really be great. It makes me feel hopeless sitting here everyday. I want to get a job and be able to help my partner and build a better life.”

* Keith Phillips, Salt River: “This project would really be welcomed. As long as there is an opportunity, I think the people who really want help will appreciate it.”

* Melissa Waterboem, Observatory: “I think it's good, it gives the homeless a place to stay. Shelters are not always enough because you have to pay and some are always full. But I won't go if it means that I get taken away from my children.”

* Ntombothando Tinga-Tinga, Rondebosch: “I sleep on the stoep of a church. There is no shelter so when it rains I get wet. That is not right, it's not good. I think a place where we can go to will be very good.”

* Bobby Buffkins, Salt River: “I think it is a very good idea because winter is coming and I want to get off the streets. Do you know that living on the streets makes you sick? Since I’ve been on the streets I have contracted TB. But some can only be helped if they really want it.”

* Vusi Matsila, city centre: “I think it is a good idea to take the homeless out of the city because some criminals come here because there is no mob justice. It would also make things much better because if you remove them from distractions like drugs and alcohol then they can focus on the right things.” - Additional reporting by Dylan Oktober

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Cape Argus

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