Homeless sector unites to make voices heard

Homeless man in a tent.

SOUTH AFRICA - Cape Town - 05 June 2020 - As part of the coronavirus lockdown, more than a hundred homeless people who resided in the Strandfontein homeless camp were dropped off at the Culemborg Bridge on May 21. Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Oct 2, 2021


OPINION: We believe that the demands of this National Homeless Manifesto will be good for homeless men and women, and they were developed in part in consultation with people directly affected, writes Raymond Perrier.

It would be too easy to shrug off the municipal elections as a minor sideshow between now and Christmas. After all, isn’t this the “lowest” level of government? Does it matter who is in charge? And does anyone even know who their ward councillor is?

And yet, the actions or inaction of our municipalities have a direct impact on the lives of all of us in ways that we feel day to day: Are the parks clean? Is the rubbish collected? Is there recycling? Are the streets well lit? Do I have access to clean water? Do I feel safe in my own city?

Of course municipalities matter. We invest in our local government a huge amount of power to do good and significant resources – not just the taxes they raise locally but the substantial share they receive of nationally collected revenue. Once every five years, we have a chance to vote into office the people we trust to do this job; or to try and keep out of office the people we do not trust.

What is more, municipal elections are the only part of the democratic system in South Africa where we can vote for a specific person – a ward councillor –whom we can then actually meet and hold accountable.

There are still people who say elections don’t change anything. But try telling that to someone in the UK who was for or against Brexit; or an American voter who was for or against Trump. Elections don’t change everything – but they certainly can change quite a lot!

The new municipal councils we will wake up to in November could make positive change for all the residents of our towns and cities. And there is one group in particular whose lives will be dramatically affected: our homeless fellow residents.

Curiously, in South Africa, there is no national strategy on homelessness; no department mandated to address this issue; no budget allocated to providing services.

As a result, we end up with benign rhetoric at national level, (mostly) indifference at provincial level, and a random mix of policies and approaches at city level.

A local politician once insisted to me that homelessness was not “in her mandate” and so she did not see why the municipality should address it.

But I suggested she think about who was most impacted by not doing anything. It is not MPs in Cape Town who get asked questions; it is the local councillors on the ground. Municipalities can do something, and they are the ones most impacted by the failure to do the right thing.

This became abundantly clear during the hard lockdown at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis 18 months ago.

The president stated that some provision be made for the homeless and then left the municipalities to respond. The fact that the responses were so varied in their speed, their cost and their benefit shows how much difference the people who are in City Hall makes to homeless people.

Sometimes the response was speedy; more often it was delayed. Some politicians and local government officials took advice from the NGOs who understand the field, some did not, and some just ignored the advice they asked for.

Some spent excessively without any sense of the value of how they were using our money, and some were more judicious and worked with organisations who could deliver in a cost-effective manner.

A lot of lessons were learnt from the hard lockdown and, ironically, in a number of cities improvements were made that have lasted. Initiatives that municipalities said they could not do, or did not have the budget to do, were delivered because of Covid-19. There are emergency shelters that have continued, improvements in policing practice and pilot schemes in better health care.

The National Homeless Network, which brings together the main NGOs in the homeless sector from across the major cities, sees these municipal elections as a chance to consolidate this experience, to build on the good things that were achieved and to learn from the mistakes that were made.

We have created a National Homeless Manifesto which focuses on the five areas where municipalities can make most impact on the lives of homeless people: shelter, sanitation, health care, security and work.

But, as they say, the devil is in the detail. So the demands of this manifesto are not broad, national demands which are easy for politicians to sign up for since they know they are too vague to tie them down. Instead, they are specific local demands, in these five areas, for each city.

Thus, under the heading of Health Care, the demand to the City of Tshwane is to implement the agreed strategy of creating a Street Medicine Unit to provide early intervention primary health care. Under the heading of Security, the demand is that both metro police and private security funded by Tshwane put an end to illegal interventions such as unjustified use of violence, destruction of property and forced removals. There are similarly specific demands for each of the major metro areas.

Between now and the election, in each city, members of the National Homeless Network – for example JOSH in Johannesburg, TLF in Tshwane – will be presenting the local manifesto to parties and candidates competing for our votes. We want to know if they are willing to commit to these demands, and if not why not.

The demands are not only specific and local: they are affordable, manageable and direct. In some cases, there is a cost involved, but it is much less than the cost of not doing something.

As we have seen with Covid-19, keeping people well is cheaper than trying to rescue them when they are sick. In other cases, there is a cost saving because municipalities often spend money on expensive law-enforcement practices that do not solve the real problem.

Just how much has Tshwane wasted in the forced removal of homeless people and fighting expensive court cases to defend their unconstitutional practices –especially when those same people return to the city a few days later?

We believe that the demands of this National Homeless Manifesto will be good for homeless men and women, and they were developed in part in consultation with people directly affected.

But we also believe that they are good for all citizens: better shelter provision means that you are less likely to find a homeless person trying to sleep in your local park or in a shop doorway; better systems of recycling can give homeless people access to work but also improve the state of our streets and the pollution caused by landfills.

And, because we believe that South Africa cares about the Constitution for which so many made such sacrifices, considering the needs of the poorest in our cities is a way in which we can show genuine ubuntu, our own humanity as voters and the humanity of our elected officials.

Local politicians often say to me that they do what they do because that is what the voter wants. I fear that they are responding to a small number of voters who just want an easy solution, or want a problem to disappear, and that leads to some of the knee-jerk responses to homelessness that we have seen.

The voters that I meet – and I believe they are in the majority – care about homeless people, recognise them as fellow citizens (indeed fellow voters) and want to ensure that our cities are places that are welcoming and caring for all.

So let’s make the circle bigger! Let’s vote in a way that includes the needs of the homeless women and men who share our cities. And let’s include in that circle the politicians who share our commitment to a nation that lives up to its Constitution.

* Raymond Perrier has for seven years been the director of the Denis Hurley Centre in Durban. He is a convenor of the National Homeless Network and is a regular commentator on homeless issues in the press, radio and television. He has experience of working with faith-based organisations supporting marginalised communities in the UK, USA and Uganda as well as South Africa.

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