Opinion

It took death to prick our national conscience on homelessness

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The murders of five people living on the streets of Pretoria has provoked calls for an urgent investigation into finding the killer. It’s pitiful that the death of human beings is what it takes to shock us to see — and maybe respond to — those who live on our streets.

Two tragedies are unfolding on the streets of South Africa’s capital city, Pretoria.

The first is that someone, or some people, are targeting homeless people and killing them as they sleep out there in the open. At the time of writing, police had yet to confirm if a serial killer was on the loose.

The Gauteng Provincial police have since put together a high-level team to investigate the murders. The police say they are treating the matter with urgency after a body of the fifth man was found. The murders have happened in a space of about three weeks.

The second tragedy is that far too many think that being homeless is normal and that the only abnormality in this story is that poor people are dying. 

The killings in the dark streets of Pretoria are taking from those who already were operating on a dignity deficit …

The killings in the dark streets of Pretoria are taking from those who already were operating on a dignity deficit, the one thing they thought nobody could take away from them: life.

In a country such as South Africa where inequality and poverty are so rife, that international publication Time dedicated a cover to the story, homelessness is seen as just another part of life — of just being unlucky to be on the wrong side of the divide.

Stereotyping the homeless does not help. The homeless are readily assumed to be on the streets because they are just “bums” who drank and sniffed their way from their comfortable homes and futures, to the streets where they find themselves.

Not many appreciate that some of the causes of homelessness include suffering mental illness, domestic violence, failure of the social safety networks and plain old-fashioned bad luck.

This is not to say that nobody is on the streets because of their bad choices — or even out of preference. But these cannot be the only reasons and certainly do not apply to many who find themselves where they are. 

We can take it as given that the majority of people who live on the streets and eat from dustbins, would like the rest of us, prefer better living conditions, especially on a cold winter’s night.

Unfortunately, we live in one of the toughest times in our post-apartheid history.

Unfortunately, we live in one of the toughest times in our post-apartheid history. A deteriorating economy and ever loosening family relations have their contribution to the numbers of men and women who live in the streets.

In May, Statistics South Africa told us that the joblessness rate had risen to 27.6% from 27.1% at the end of 2018. And when counting those who are discouraged from looking for work, the unemployment rate rises to an astonishing 38%.

Prospects for young people look increasingly dim. Stats SA has revealed that about 3,2 million or 31,1%, out of 10,3 million young people aged 15-24 years were not in employment, education or training (NEET).

Under these circumstances, we can anticipate that homelessness induced by economic adversity is likely to grow. Perhaps with it, the attendant cycle of drug abuse-unemployment-homelessness will also come to a boil. 

Many Christians shrug their shoulders and accept as inevitable that the homeless, like the other poor, “will always be with us”, as Christ says.

Many Christians shrug their shoulders and accept as inevitable that the homeless, like the other poor, “will always be with us”, as Christ says (John 12:8). 

They either ignorantly or conveniently delink what Jesus was saying from the full context of the phrase, “for there will never cease to be the poor in the land; that is why I am commanding you to open wide your hand to your brother and the poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11).

Our obligation as believers is therefore not to just feel pity or be outraged that someone is killing the poor. It is to do what we can to ensure that they are not there in the first place. 

As voters, we could agitate for policies that reflect that we are people who believe in being in solidarity with the poor and the most marginalised.

As voters, we could agitate for policies that reflect that we are people who believe in being in solidarity with the poor and the most marginalised. And while we might not be able to give the homeless room inside our own homes, we could support soup kitchens and shelters either materially or by availing ourselves to help in their efforts. 

Nobody said it would be easy. But Christ did say that when we house the homeless, we house him. For whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters, we do it for him. 

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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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    It took death to prick our national conscience on homelessness