The UN zooms in on homelessness

Published Sep 19, 2023


By: Cathy Achilles

Tuesday, September 19, 2023, will be the start of the general debate of heads of state at the UN’s 78th General Assembly in New York.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres will present his report on “Inclusive policies and programmes to address homelessness, including in the aftermath of Covid-19”.

On June 18, 2020, the UN Economic and Social Council adopted resolution 2020/7, on “affordable housing and social protection systems for all to address homelessness”. The resolution came from sessions that were held by the UN Commission for Social Development, the secretary-general’s 2019 report, and a meeting held by an expert group on homelessness.

“Homelessness is a condition where a person or household lacks habitable space with security of tenure, rights, and ability to enjoy social relations, including safety. Homelessness is a manifestation of extreme poverty and a failure of multiple systems and human rights.” This the definition of homelessness that the expert group recommended. They acknowledged that each country has its own definition.

When it comes to homelessness, most people usually only visualise people sleeping rough on the streets. While I was living in shelters, I was regularly told that I was not homeless. If my shelter fees were not paid, I would have lived on the streets. The expert group recommended that homelessness should be categorised into people sleeping in open spaces, temporary shelters, including GBV safe houses, informal settlements, and living on a temporary bases with family members or friends. In a South African context, I will also include residents in hijacked buildings and people living in informal structures in the backyards of houses.

According to Statistics SA (Stats SA) General Household Survey 2021, 153 114 households live in informal dwellings/shacks (not backyard) and 651 164 households live in informal dwellings or shacks (backyard) in South Africa. In Gauteng, 17% of households live in informal dwellings.

There are many factors that lead to primary (street), secondary (temporary shelters), and tertiary (informal housing) homelessness – poverty, substance abuse, unstable family structure, gender-based violence, job losses, evictions, losing a house due to fire or natural disaster, family feuds – and people who are asylum seekers or refugees.

I became homeless in 2020 because I lent a huge amount of money to a friend who did not pay it back. No one is immune to homelessness. If it was not for the anti-eviction clause during the state of emergency, more people would have become homeless during Covid because their companies closed down or because of loss of income.

People experiencing homelessness should be treated with dignity as mentioned in resolution 2020/07, which “calls upon member states to combat discrimination and negative stereotypes against people experiencing homelessness, including by strengthening anti-discrimination laws, advocacy, and awareness-raising”.

When we have a clear definition of homelessness, mechanisms can be created to bring people out of homelessness or prevent it from happening.

In 2020, I lived at the Stellenbosch Municipality Covid temporary shelter for the homeless. After the temporary shelter closed down, a social worker at the night shelter referred me to U-turn Homeless Ministries. Through their four-phased programme, they empower people with skills to overcome homelessness. After they employed me I moved into a social housing apartment and graduated from their Phase 3 Work-readiness programme.

My apartment is part of a multi-income estate. The project is in partnership with the developers and the Western Cape government. The social housing manager mentioned that one of the tenants’ wives was grateful that she had a bath in their apartment. For most of her life, she had to wash in a plastic basin.

Resolution 2020/7 recognises “that governments have the primary responsibility to end homelessness while noting that civil society organisations play an important role in delivering services, and encourages all actors to build a broad-based partnership at all levels to prevent people from falling into homelessness, support those experiencing homelessness, and develop long-term sustainable solutions to end homelessness”.

Assisting people out of homelessness is not a “lone ranger” project but rather partnerships need to be created to reach all spheres of homelessness. Secretary-General Guterres’s report could be the catalyst to start the conversation on how, as a collective, we can empower and guide people out of homelessness.