Dare we imagine ending homelessness, one person at a time? Stephan de Beer argues that an integrated approach, committed to building truly inclusive communities, can start to make a dent by mediating viable and sustainable alternatives for street homeless individuals.
A “one-size-fits-all” approach cannot overcome homelessness
Street homelessness in South Africa has diverse faces, and it continuously changes. Seeking to address homelessness through a “one-size-fits-all” approach fails every time. Diversified interventions are required, along with acknowledging the diverse faces and causes of street homelessness.
A “one-size-fits-all” approach fails every time
Policy-makers, churches, civil society and universities all need to be called out for our lazy approaches to street homelessness. In transforming our collective approaches to overcome street homelessness, we need to develop even greater rigorous analysis and intelligence around its causes, while simultaneously appreciating possible clues for mediating sustainable pathways out of the crisis.
In the global south with informality being such a central part of the urban fabric, we need to differentiate between street homelessness, which is people literally living with no form of shelter whatsoever, and the larger number of people living precariously in make-shift housing.
Who are the street homeless in the cities of South Africa? An old differentiation by the geographer Hartshorne is still helpful, even in the South African context. He distinguishes between economic, chronic, situational and near homelessness. I add the working homeless as a further category in the South African context.
Today, unlike the 1980s and even the 1990s, the largest percentage of street homeless people in South African cities are the economic homeless. Apartheid legislation in the past prevented black South Africans from being on the streets of the city at night. Today, people come to the city in the hope of economic opportunity, then often get stranded while looking for employment. They are mostly not substance users and do not necessarily live with mental illness or other pathologies, but simply seek access to a secure income in order to sustain them and their families.
Chronic homelessness is the second category. This might include people who live with chronic mental illness, who might not become economically active again, and who actually require long-term affordable supportive housing, off the streets. Current housing and health policies, and funding instruments, at all spheres of government, simply fail to enable this. Also falling into the category of chronic homelessness are substance abusers, many of whom are struggling to break free. Popular opinion views all homeless people as substance users, which simply does not hold true. What is true though, is that this group finds sustainable pathways out of homelessness the hardest.
In a number of cities in North America and Europe, a “housing first” approach is used to re-integrate chronic homeless people successfully into communities. Instead of requiring of people to first be “fixed” before they can be housed, the premise of this approach is that secure, supportive housing creates the conditions that make it easier for people to deal with addictive behaviour, or other pathologies, by removing the hardships of the streets.
The third category is that of situational homelessness. Specific situations render people homeless: people become homeless when discharged from correctional or psychiatric institutions; older people are kicked out of their family homes to fend for themselves; others have to be in the city to attend court or go to hospital, then lack the funds to return home. Simple, early interventions can ensure people’s swift re-integration with their families, before they slip into chronic homelessness. This category includes the more difficult challenge of transnational migrants who might be refugees and asylum-seekers. Their legal status needs to be addressed if they are to avoid homelessness. A number of churches in the US have played a prophetic role, as asylum churches, not only to advocate for the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees, but also by providing crisis accommodation within the church community.
The last category Hartshorne mentions, is so-called near homelessness. Many people live in precarious housing, perpetually at risk of being evicted. Should a landlord decide to use the property for a different purpose, or should a tenant lose their income, the chances of losing their housing becomes high. Instead of dealing with homelessness reactively through relief services only, strategies need to include the protection of people’s housing rights, prevention of illegal evictions, and advocating affordable housing alternatives in well-placed locations.
In the South African context, a growing category of people are the working homeless. The spatial fabric of our cities still concentrates low-income people far away from economic opportunities. There is a dearth of affordable housing opportunities around shopping malls, industrial areas, or other places of work. To avoid a large percentage of people’s incomes going into transportation costs, low-income workers then opt to live on the street, and only occasionally return to where their families are. This becomes a livelihood strategy of the poor, saving money for educational or other purposes, which is often not understood for its tenacity by those of us who have more options. Unless the spatial fabric of our cities is addressed through bold investments providing affordable and appropriate housing options in all areas of the city, street homelessness will continue to rise.
Homelessness IS a housing issue (too)
When the Group Head for Social Development in the City of Tshwane made a big effort to bring an inter-departmental task team together to address street homelessness in the city, I felt for him. Those responsible for providing housing in the city, and even some from the Office of the Mayor, simply rejected the idea that homelessness was also a housing issue.
They dumped the full responsibility for addressing street homelessness on the Department of Social Development. In this way homelessness is pathologised or reduced to charity, regarded as an illness to be treated by social workers and psychologists, instead of acknowledging that it is also a matter of socio-economic and spatial justice.
It might seem bizarre for officials and politicians not to be able to see the obvious link between homelessness and housing; but it is shockingly true. We often de-link homelessness from housing – personally, as officials, politicians or service providers, but also at a policy level where street homelessness is absent from most significant housing policies and guidelines in the South African context.
Having been personally engaged as a faith-based practitioner, activist and researcher in seeking alternatives to street homelessness for over 25 years, I have seen the power of appropriate housing solutions in mediating sustainable pathways out of homelessness. I have also seen how the city used overnight shelters as dumping sites for “unwanted” populations.
We have witnessed how transitional housing programmes – providing safe, hospitable and empowering spaces, accompanied by psycho-social and spiritual care, and employment preparation – supported the re-integration into society of thousands of women and girl children. We saw how women and men, living with chronic mental illness, thrived when provided with secure tenure in suitable, supportive housing. We experienced how creative collaboration between social service agencies and social housing developers can forge innovative housing solutions for people often excluded from mainstream housing options. In the late 1990s we were surprised that dying homeless people, living with HIV/Aids, who lacked access to housing and medication, recovered once housed, nourished, treated, and cared for.
In a number of cases this was done through pilot projects supported by the Social Housing Division of the Gauteng Department of Human Settlements. These interventions still continue, with great success, and are often heralded as examples of good practice. Instead of scaling successful pilot projects though, ensuring their replication in communities across the city, they remained just that: pilot projects. Instead of allowing such success to provoke bold imaginations for a more humane and just city, political discontinuities, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and moral mediocrity have prevented scaling of such alternatives.
The injustice towards homeless people is demonstrated in its grossest form in the vast number of empty buildings scattered across the urban landscape in Tshwane. And yet, somehow, this does not register in our collective consciences for the injustice it is. As bizarre as the disconnect between homelessness as a reality and housing provision as one of the solutions, is the mismatch between available public and private land, and the number of street homeless people in the country’s capital city.
- In the City of Tshwane, the empty high-rise apartment buildings of Schubart Park and Kruger Park, since 2011 – able to accommodate close to 1,000 families – have become monuments of government ineptitude, under successive leaders and different political parties. The people who used to live there were illegally evicted after a ruling by the Constitutional Court. The city then allowed these properties to go to waste and be stripped to the bone.
If the figures of Statistics South Africa are correct that there are about 6,300 street homeless people in the City of Tshwane, these buildings alone could be enough to accommodate almost all homeless persons in the city.
- Well-known listed companies own buildings standing vacant in the capital city, sometimes for years. There are apparent tax breaks for buildings that yield no income. How can this be just, and their profits moral, in the face of growing homelessness? Why is the occupation of such buildings by the poor seen as a crime, but the moral crime of allowing such buildings to stand empty is excused?
- Churches own vast tracks of land and properties across the whole city. In some cases, churches utilise their properties well in service of the community, almost 24/7. But in many cases churches cannot justify their untaxed properties, being used only a couple of hours a week for religious insiders.
We have witnessed the successful recycling of church properties to include overnight shelters, transitional and special needs housing, social services, health care, and worship spaces. In a country guilty of extraordinary inequalities, such as ours, extraordinary measures are required to overcome such inequalities.
- Since #FeesMustFall, we have become aware of the large numbers of homeless students. Sometimes universities themselves escalate property prices in their surroundings, through purchasing vast tracks of land for future use, while students are homeless today. Some universities outsource student accommodation to the private sector, which don’t address the needs of students who cannot afford their products. What will universities do to ensure appropriate housing products that will eradicate student homelessness, and precarious student housing? A good place to start is by simply acknowledging our failure in this regard.
There is enough local and international evidence that demonstrates the powerful link between diversified housing solutions and sustainable pathways out of homelessness. Dismissing this is politically convenient, but morally inexcusable.
Inclusive communities, with dwellings in them
The diverse faces and causes of street homelessness demand much bolder, integrated, diversified, and innovative interventions. They need to include psycho-social, health, economic, spatial and housing interventions. These should be backed by consistent advocacy and awareness-raising programmes, educating society on the realities of homelessness. Proper and appropriate public and private investments to irreversibly break cycles of homelessness are required. All spheres of government and all sectors of society should embrace homelessness as a priority. All South Africans should declare war on homelessness, and not on homeless people. Instead of accepting the reality of homelessness, we need to lament it as a gross indignity, a violation of our collective humanity, and a resounding call to create hopeful alternatives.
It was prophet Isaiah’s vision “to house the homeless stranger”, and to restore streets with dwellings in them. Inclusive communities will find creative ways to integrate street homeless people, appropriately and
 Truman A. Hartshorne, “Interpreting the City: An Urban Geography”, 2nd Edition, 1992, New York: John Wiley
 See reflections on a “housing first” approach: https://www.homelesshub.ca/solutions/housing-accommodation-and-supports/housing-first; Deborah K. Padgett, Benjamin F. Henwood & Sam J. Tsemberis, 2015. “Housing First: Ending Homelessness, Transforming Systems, and Changing Lives”, Oxford Scholarship
 See David Bilchitz, “Schubart Park eviction a dishonourable injustice”, Mail&Guardian, 24 October 2011
 Stephan de Beer & Rehana Vally (editors), “Pathways out of Homelessness Research Report 2015”, pp.45-61, University of Pretoria
 Isaiah 58 verses 7 and 12Republish