Every week this column starts out the same.
“There’s a pandemic, times are tough...” But it’s true.
And nowhere is the hardship more evident than on the streets of the city centre.
The number of beggars, homeless people and squatters has risen sharply since the country went into lockdown over a year ago.
Tents and small informal settlements have sprouted up in District Six, around the Castle of Good Hope, along Sir Lowry Road, Adderley Street, the Station and Foreshore, under bridges and in Green Point and Three Anchor Bay.
According to the NGO U-Turn, there are nearly 15 000 people living on the streets of Cape Town, but only about 2 500 beds in the city’s shelters.
With their safe places at full capacity, the City of Cape Town has its hands full – not just with looking after all the homeless mense, which is a humanitarian crisis in itself.
But also with policing crime and dealing with a higher volume of complaints from residents and businesses about antisocial behaviour.
So what is the City to do?
Here’s what not to do:
– Share a “complaint form” template on social media for residents to fill in and submit to Mayco Member for Safety and Security, JP Smith.
The City is currently fighting a legal battle against 11 homeless people in the High Court and Equality Court, where their municipal by-laws are being challenged.
Lawyers from Ndifuna Ukwazi Law Centre argue that the by-laws are unconstitutional and criminalise homelessness, by making it illegal for people living on the street to sleep, bathe, erect a shelter, beg, sit or even stand in a public place.
And activists say the City should not be using the complaint forms to get residents to gang up on poor people and help fight their legal battles.
– Fine homeless people who flout by-laws.
Two years ago, the City started fining street people between R300 and R1500 for a range of transgressions from blocking pavements and sleeping in a car in public, to littering and making illegal fires.
Not only was this practice blasted as punitive. But, practically, where did the City expect street people to find the money to pay these penalties?
After a day of begging for food money, keep some aside for the fines kitty? Ridiculous.
– Build a “concentration camp” on a sports field in Strandfontein to house 1500 homeless people during the lockdown. What a disaster that was.
– Evict poor people during the cold, wet winter months.
To their credit, the City does invest heavily in programmes for the homeless. In 2018/2019, the City spent R31.6m.
Last week Mayor Dan Plato was promoting the Give Dignity campaign, where citizens can donate money to registered shelters, NGOs, social workers and rehabs.
And JP was boasting on the radio the other day: “You won’t find another metro in this country that is doing as much as Cape Town in terms of safe spaces, EPWD jobs, outreach units to help people reintegrate, counselling and other services, support programmes, the winter-readiness programme.”
Great, these are all positive and humane solutions. But then stick to those.
The homelessness problem is not going to go away. The poverty is real. The struggle is real.
You can’t turn a blind eye to it, you can’t sweep it under the rug.
In fact, it is likely to get worse before it gets better.
So more support please, and less bullying, evicting, fining and arresting.