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We can care for the homeless while also preserving public spaces

The Daily Maverick

3 March 2023

By Geordin Hill-Lewis, Mayor of Cape Town.

The expanded budget for addressing homelessness in Cape Town aims to allow the City to find a balance between meeting the needs of the many who find themselves on the streets, and ensuring that all citizens can exercise their right to safe, clean and well-maintained city spaces. No person has the right to reserve a public space as exclusively theirs, and where they have refused offers of dignified shelter and other social interventions, we have no choice but to turn to the courts, as we did recently when the Western Cape high court granted our application for eviction notices to be served at various ‘tented camp’ sites in the CBD.

Sleeping rough on the city’s pavements and parks, in shop entrances and under bridges is a very harsh life that is fraught with danger, hardship and health issues, particularly as the cold and wet of winter sets in. Society does have a duty to ease the suffering of its most vulnerable people.

Everyone who ends up on the street does so because the alternative choices at the time were worse, or because there simply were none. Such people are not a homogenous demographic with a common back story. Every single man, woman or child had a different journey that brought them there. Some people came seeking a new life in the city and struggled to land on their feet without a network of family or friends. Many are battling drug and alcohol addiction, or mental health challenges, and are going through this alone. Some have simply fled worse conditions at home — violence, abuse or extreme poverty.

There are countless reasons why people become homeless and remain homeless in the city, and there is no single solution that can be magically applied that will fix this. This is why addressing homelessness is such a complex and nuanced task, and why our planning and response covers such a wide range of interventions beyond just the provision of shelter beds.

But remaining on the city’s streets and in public spaces indefinitely cannot be one of the solutions. Cape Town needs to work if we are to realise our vision of building a City of Hope for all. We cannot allow the urban decay that has taken root in other cities ever to set in here. Capetonians and visitors need to be able to access public spaces, and business owners need to be able to operate. No person has the right to reserve a public space as exclusively theirs, and where they have refused offers of dignified shelter and other social interventions, we have no choice but to turn to the courts for an eviction order.

This is the context that led to the Western Cape high court recently granting our application for eviction notices to be served at various “tented camp” sites in the CBD. The people living in these public spaces were repeatedly offered social assistance, including shelter at NGO-run night shelters as well as City-run Safe Spaces, and turned these offers down. When all attempts to help people off the street are persistently refused, we have to ask the courts to step in. That is the only way to preserve the city’s public spaces, ensure the safety of motorists and pedestrians, and help small businesses survive.

I believe it is possible to balance these requirements for a sustainable and economically vibrant city with the rights of homeless people without forcing trade-offs on either side. We can prevent urban decay and protect public spaces while at the same time offering people a way off the streets and a pathway back into society. Getting this balance right is something that occupies a great deal of my time.

It is also worth noting that the City doesn’t have the constitutional mandate or the funding from national government to provide crucial welfare services. But if we don’t step in and deliver some of these services, we will be failing our city’s most vulnerable people. This is why the City of Cape Town has a dedicated “Care Programme” aimed at addressing both the physical shelter needs as well as the psychological and wellness needs of our city’s homeless citizens. And we are the only metro in the country with such a programme.

Last year we increased the budget of this programme from R65-million to R77-million. We have proposed a budget of R230-million over the next three years to operate and expand our Safe Space shelters, which represents a 62% increase over the previous three-year budget cycle. These Safe Spaces are where homeless residents are offered not only dignified and safe shelter with clean ablution facilities and two meals per day, but also access to social workers, healthcare workers, addiction treatment, and a range of services to help people back on their feet. This includes assistance to obtain IDs or to apply for social grants, as well as access to personal development planning, skills training and help in finding temporary jobs in the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP).

But a bed in a Safe Space is not the final outcome we envisage for homeless people. The ultimate goal is reintegration into society, which can mean a range of different things to different people. This is why our Care Programme also includes a Reintegration Unit – a team of social development professionals who assess the individual circumstances of homeless people, including the reasons they became homeless, their mental health status or substance addictions, family situations, living conditions and any possible income they may have – in an effort to help them back into society.

In the previous financial year — July 2021 to June 2022 — all of these efforts yielded some very encouraging results. A total of 1,813 people were helped off the streets through either shelter placements or being reunited with families and other forms of reintegration; 2,799 people took part in development programmes at City-run Safe Spaces; there were 936 EPWP work placements; and there were 566 referrals for social grants, identity documents, specialised care facilities, and substance abuse treatment.

But by far our biggest budget investment is in the physical expansion of our Safe Spaces, and the number of beds available to homeless Capetonians. Given the rapid increase of homelessness across Cape Town in the wake of the Covid lockdowns, expanding our shelter capacity is our top priority. It is also a legal requirement that no one may be evicted from a public space without the availability of alternative accommodation.

Currently, we run two Safe Spaces shelters in the city centre — Culemborg 1 with 230 beds and Culemborg 2 with 250 beds — as well as the 250-bed Paint City Safe Space in Bellville. By January next year, following a public participation process that will begin shortly, we aim to open a fourth Safe Space in Green Point’s Ebenezer Road with over 300 beds. This is in addition to the NGO-run shelters across the city — the Haven night shelter has almost 700 beds between its nine shelters.

We are also very aware of the challenges around couples and privacy in these shared spaces, and are working towards solutions. Culemborg 1 already offers accommodation to married couples, and Culemborg 2 is in the process of adapting a dormitory section for this purpose.

If we are to make meaningful progress in our city’s homelessness challenge, we are going to have to enlist a lot of help and support from Capetonians. We cannot do it alone. Our NGO partners in this space are true heroes and I ask that you please support them, either directly or through our Give Dignity campaign, rather than giving cash to those who ask for it on the streets.

Cape Town is not alone in this challenge. Homelessness and the preservation of public spaces is a burning issue in cities across the world, and we keep a close eye on how others respond to this. But I do believe that if enough of us unite behind this goal, we will succeed in keeping Cape Town safe, clean and open for business while also taking care of homeless residents with the care and dignity they deserve. DM

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