Homelessness is multi-layered and requires aggressive approach

The City of Tshwane’s homeless shelter was designed to keep people off the street but mismanagement and poor living conditions have forced people back out. Picture: File

The City of Tshwane’s homeless shelter was designed to keep people off the street but mismanagement and poor living conditions have forced people back out. Picture: File

Published Jun 23, 2024


Homelessness cannot be separated from poverty, and the government needs to look deeper into the socio-economic pull-and-push factors that constantly drive the numbers up, says report.

As the winter progresses and the number of people using pavements as places of refuge every night increases, so do efforts to tackle the issue need to be increased.

Last year, statistics indicated that almost 56 000 people lived on the street across the country, as global studies also reported a growing incident of the world’s population being deemed vulnerable to multidimensional deprivation, including inadequate living conditions, insufficient resources and poor health and well-being.

“An estimated 18.2 million South Africans live in extreme poverty,” said a Statistics SA (Stats SA) report early this year when it reported that last year alone, at least 55 719 homeless persons were recorded in the country.

“They are regarded as among the most vulnerable,” the report said.

Natasha Jordaan and her baby, Aphiwe, live under the N2 bridge leaving Cape Town. Their dwellings are small structures made of plastic, cardboard and whatever else is useful. Picture: Courtney Africa/African News Agency (ANA)

In Gauteng the homeless were in the majority at 45.6%, followed by the Western Cape at 17.5%. KwaZulu-Natal had 13.9% of people reportedly homeless, while the Northern Cape and Mpumalanga recorded the lowest proportions with 1.1% and 2.3% respectively.

“Of that number, 39 052 were men and 16 667 were women,” the report said.

The number of children – from teenagers to very young babies – is insurmountable, said former street dweller Selby, as he spoke of the need to ramp up efforts to assist people in Pretoria to get recognition and decent housing.

Some homeless people live on the streets and others in shelters.

An estimated 45 000 are roofless and only 11 207 are housed in shelters, last year’s statistics indicated.

Joblessness and income challenges were counted as being chief among the reasons for just over 40% of the unhoused, drug and alcohol abuse the second most common cause at 25%, while arguments with family and friends forced 17% out of their homes.

The University of Pretoria, which runs a programme to mitigate homelessness, said the death of caregivers and/or parents accounted for 8.8%, while there was a section of the homeless who said they could not afford accommodation, and they accounted for 7.9%.

The institution, through the research unit of its Community Oriented Primary Care project and the Department of Family Medicine, looks into and acts against homelessness.

It collaborates with the University’s Centre for Faith and Community to address the interconnected health and social problems of the most vulnerable people in Tshwane, and, it said: “Coordinating care is the most important aspect and could ensure the success of the National Health Insurance (NHI), to build efficiencies that don’t exist.”

But, NGOs in Pretoria said the numbers were much more than formal statistics reflect.

“They do not only live in the city centre where they are ‘counted’ but can be found in parks, in shopping centres and anywhere on the peripheries of town.

“They sleep in school grounds and open areas, occupy abandoned buildings, and even take refuge in construction sites,” Selby Jacobs of Call Them by Name said.

He said he and his organisation had been feeding homeless people in Pretoria and surrounds for over a decade and were constantly shocked at how young some of the homeless are and at the numbers of mothers and children, grown men and young boys who turn up for a meal.

In a report compiled in January, which they have not been able to submit to the government as yet, he said that they found that there were too many socio-economic issues that plagued communities across the country and they knew no colour, creed, race or social standing.

Homelessness could not be separated from poverty, their report found, and while all sectors of society had a role to play, the government has to put policies into place to tackle the growing pandemic.

“The government needs to look deeper into the socio-economic pull-and-push factors which constantly drive the numbers up. Poverty, in all its ugly manifestations, is a big factor, but among the people on the street are grown people and children from well-to-do families who fall in with the wrong crowd and run away from home, those who are on the street to escape the rigid laws governing society, and those who are pushed out of their homes by the need to make a living,” said the report.

The report mentioned a large number of homosexuals who needed the freedom to express themselves without judgement and girls who wanted to explore the freedom that lay beyond the walls of school and home.

“Women also find their way onto the street as they escape abuse, and often children do too.

“There are no socio-economic structures in place to turn to when desperation kicks in. The lure of freedom from social norms and expectations and the promise of fulfilling unbridled dreams is prevalent on our streets,” the NPO said.

And while shelters exist for those who seek refuge rather than live on the street, the conditions within are unsustainable, with food not always being available, living conditions unclean and crowded, and sleeping arrangements not clearly demarcated and monitored.

“Designed to provide shelter, a roof‚ ablution facilities and kitchens, they often struggle under mismanagement or financial pressure. Health-care threats abound and this is besides being inundated with inward immigration from out-of-towners and people from other countries.”

Drugs and substance abuse in and out of shelters is a big problem, as identified by NPOs, NGOs and local governments.

“They are relied on to sustain the emotional anguish and pain of not belonging to a social circle, a community that cares, a family that loves,” Jacobs said, adding that these abuses often lead to, among other things, prostitution as a way out, and to criminality to feed themselves and stave off the pain.

“Right now, it is cold, pavements are freezing and no number of blankets can keep anyone lying on the hard, cold concrete from going mad... Drugs can, and they do.”

Sunday independent