A response to the City’s strategy to reduce rough sleeping

‘Homelessness and associated rough sleeping are caused by structural, systemic and individual factors that necessitate a whole-of-society approach.’ File Picture: Bheki Radebe

‘Homelessness and associated rough sleeping are caused by structural, systemic and individual factors that necessitate a whole-of-society approach.’ File Picture: Bheki Radebe

Published May 7, 2024


This is part one of a three-part column.

I promised you an in-depth look at the City’s draft strategy to reduce rough sleeping in Cape Town and that is what I will be sharing with you over the next three weeks. To say I am disappointed would be an understatement.

I was optimistic after my first reading of the draft strategy. Unfortunately, I think that is the City’s intention – to persuade those who read it to believe the City’s new strategy will be addressing the failures.

I wouldn’t blame anyone for reading through the strategy, released for comment over a week ago, and coming to the conclusion that the City is finally seeing homelessness for what it is.

The strategy acknowledges that the issue of rough sleeping is multifaceted and complex and correctly distinguishes between various categories of rough sleepers and recognises that rough sleepers are themselves not a homogeneous group.

It goes on to say that rough sleeping requires a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach, as the City alone cannot address it.

The term “street people”, from the City’s 2013 policy, has been changed to “rough sleepers”.

In defining the term, the City has, for the first time, correctly included those in shelters and safe spaces, as its prison-style dormitory rooms which afford no privacy cannot ever be considered homes.

All the statements can easily be taken at face value and have the effect the City is aiming for – convince critics it is moving in the right direction.

The strategy document goes on to list how the City has historically and unsuccessfully dealt with homelessness. It concludes by admitting that despite all its efforts, the pressures that result in homelessness have overtaken the capacity of its interventions.

This is a huge statement to make as it validates all the claims by its critics that the City does not have the capacity to house even those living on the streets willing to accept assistance and is out of its depth in trying to make a significant dent in reducing the numbers on the streets.

Homelessness and associated rough sleeping are caused by structural, systemic and individual factors that necessitate a whole-of-society approach. This was yet another of the big statements in the document that initially motivated me to believe we were potentially seeing a real change.

The City goes so far as admitting that staying at night shelters and safe spaces might not be as wonderful an option as it has led the public to believe. People staying there have to renegotiate their accommodation nightly and are permitted on the premises only from 5.30pm until the morning, with a limit of 3 months.

The City also states, officially and publicly for the first time, that we are dealing with individuals and a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to have a systemic impact.

The City admits to not having accurate data on how many people fall within the various categories of homeless people in Cape Town. With so many admissions that corroborate the criticisms being levelled against the City, I found it hard to believe it could possibly not be sincere in its motives.

Unfortunately, the manner in which the document is structured, makes one feel the City is under pressure to silence its critics on its approach to dealing with homelessness and is doing so in the strategy by saying all the right things, yet, in practise, intending to change little.

One doesn’t have to read much further than the statement that the City will employ a public health approach to overcoming rough sleeping and assisting rough sleepers. This involves addressing rough sleeping from a broader perspective that considers the social determinants of health and focuses on prevention, intervention and collaboration among stakeholders to realise that the changes that will be made in the City’s management of homelessness have less to do with the homeless and their well-being and a great deal to do with the City’s agenda.

This is a huge disappointment because the City is saying all the right things in a concerted effort to deceive Capetonians in underhanded ways.

This becomes more than obvious when it on the one hand, owns up to the many failures of the current approach in dealing with homelessness, yet, on the other hand, absolves itself and the provincial government and squarely levels the blame at the National Department of Social Development.

Having read and scrutinised the strategy, I am unconvinced that their implementation of the so-called new strategy will see much of a change in the manner in which homelessness is being addressed in Cape Town or in the number of people sleeping rough on the streets of Cape Town.

Suddenly the contradictions start and one has to wonder just what the City is up to.

* Carlos Mesquita is an activist for the homeless and a researcher working in the Western Cape Legislature for the GOOD Party.

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

Cape Argus

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