Opinion

We are failing the homeless community

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After the recent deaths of five homeless people, all in quick succession in our capital city of Pretoria, Stephan de Beer is reminded of a past discussion where it was clear that the issue needed to be addressed. But still, the reality is that nothing has changed and the crisis continues.

Almost a year ago at a meeting at a local university, while discussing street homelessness, I was struck by the words of a planner from a local metropolitan municipality. She spoke about how she had to face the fact that she failed the homeless community personally, professionally and politically.  

Somehow, we find storage space in our minds or hearts, in which to file away the reality, visibility, memory and demand street homeless people place on us, collectively, as a society. 

We carefully construct a reality in which our political commitments exclude homeless concerns;

We carefully construct a reality in which our political commitments exclude homeless concerns; our professional commitments lack the passion to think innovatively about the full integration of homeless people; and we fail to see that we are, both personally and morally, complicit in the perpetuation of street homelessness, simply through our neglect, silence and apathy.

The way in which this city planner articulated what she regarded as her failure, opened up the creative possibility to re-imagine ourselves and our commitment, in relation to street homelessness.

In the past two weeks, in the City of Tshwane, five homeless people were murdered within days of each other, seemingly by someone using the same modus operandi in every case[1]

More than anything in recent times, the devastating deaths of these nameless individuals, make visible what we conveniently try to store, far away from our collective and personal consciences.

More than anything in recent times, the devastating deaths of these nameless individuals, make visible what we conveniently try to store, far away from our collective and personal consciences. If there is still a trace of humanity left within us, it should prick the numbness that sets in when considering inequality, poverty, and its stark manifestation in the ever-growing homeless populations of South African cities.

The media releases by the South African Police Service were encouragingly sensitive and dignified. And yet, instead of only encouraging homeless people to huddle together at night on cold and harsh pavements for their own protection, apart from obviously launching a task team to find the perpetrator/s, we should ask deeper questions.

  • Why are homeless people living on the city’s streets when so many buildings — government, business and church-owned — stand empty, or under-utilised, for years?[2]
  • Why does the City of Tshwane, as well as most South African cities, lack coherent policies and strategies to address street homelessness, even though policy and strategic proposals have been tabled by researchers, academics, civil society, and organised homeless communities, for years?[3]
  • How are city planners, architects, religious leaders, health professionals and politicians, integrating homeless concerns on their agendas, in their planning and as professional and political priorities?
  • Why are there no dedicated budgets to address street homelessness in every sphere of government, in an integrated, inter-departmental manner? Does it not expose what a brave planner confessed: our collective failure – personally, morally, professionally and politically, to prioritise one of society’s most vulnerable populations?

One of the gravest mistakes we can make is to simplify causes and solutions to street homelessness. It is indeed a complex matter requiring multi-faceted interventions.

And yet, in the City of Tshwane itself, and elsewhere in the world, innovative and responsive interventions have been built that model — in an embryonic way — possible sustainable pathways out of homelessness. Some of these were successful pilot projects funded by government, not through dedicated funding to address street homelessness but through housing and other financial mechanisms. And yet, these pilot projects — successful and viable as they have proven to be — were never replicated or scaled.

Can the devastating deaths of five vulnerable, middle-aged homeless men, call us to re-assess our priorities? 

Their deaths serve as a cruel mirror exposing our soullessness: indeed, our personal, professional and political failure.

Their deaths serve as a cruel mirror exposing our soullessness: indeed, our personal, professional and political failure. Their deaths tear into our finely crafted conveniences, reminding us of the inconvenient reality of despair on our streets. 

Inconvenient indeed, as facing homelessness is to face our complicity in forging a careless, soulless society. Facing homelessness is to face our own vulnerability and powerlessness in the face of society’s deepest fractures. Theologically speaking, facing the homeless stranger is to face the inconvenient Jesus, saying again: “I am him, I am her, whom you failed”.

The only meaning to be found in the cruel deaths of five image-bearers of God on the streets of our capital city would be if they call us from complacency and convenience to inconvenient solidarity: to prioritise a homeless person and homeless concerns — morally, professionally and politically — in all our institutions. It should start with me. 


[1]“Bodies piling up as fifth homeless man murdered in Pretoria in a month”, Iavan Pijoos, Times Live, 19 June 2019, https://www.timeslive.co.za/news/south-africa/2019-06-19-body-of-fifth-homeless-man-found-in-pretoria/

[2]“Schubart Park deadline missed”, Rapula Moatshe, Pretoria News, 27 December 2017, https://www.iol.co.za/pretoria-news/schubart-park-deadline-missed-12542508

[3]Pathways out of Homelessness Research Report 2015”, Stephan de Beer & Rehana Vally (editors), University of Pretoria, https://www.up.ac.za/media/shared/249/ZP_Files/homelessness-report-2015.zp70613.pdf; “Pathways out of Homelessness”, a special edition of articles, sub-edited by Stephan de Beer & Rehana Vally, originally published in Development Southern Africa34(4), 2017, 383-496, http://ccmresearch.org.za/center-publications/special-editions/pathways-out-of-homelessness/

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

 

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We are failing the homeless community