Isolation is a new experience for many of us. For the homeless it is a constant way of life. Their social isolation places them at the margins of society where they are ignored or even criminalized. Stephan de Beer writes that the National Homeless Network is working to ensure that homeless people enjoy the same rights as all other South Africans. In particular, they are working with local municipalities to make provisions so that homeless people can also be safe in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Beyond this, SANNoSH is also looking to partner with individuals and organisations to create permanent communities of solidarity and care that can provide for the needs of those who are forced to live on the streets.
The majority of homeless women and men are perpetually socially isolated. That is often the nature of being homeless. Homeless persons might be isolated from their families and loved ones. They often lack a sense of belonging in a caring community. They are mostly unemployed without the kinds of relationships work places tend to offer; and they do not have the privilege of decent shelter with people they can call their neighbours.
On top of that, law enforcement agencies and local governments often criminalise people for being homeless, thereby further deepening their isolation and marginalisation. The National Homeless Network, representing more than 20 organisations in six South African cities, formally launched itself on Human Rights Day on 21 March 2020. In a letter to the Human Rights Commission, they request an investigation into the systematic abuses of homeless persons’ basic rights. They refer to abduction without arrest or being charged, destruction of belongings, refusal to receive complaints, and excessive use of violence: all administered by law enforcement agencies (the South African Police Service, metropolitan law enforcement, and private security firms).
In addition, rights enjoyed by the majority of citizens of South Africa are often out of reach for homeless persons, including the right to dignity and equality, the right to privacy, the right to property, and the right to just administrative action and access to the courts.
READ – Ending homelessness: Building inclusive communities, 4 July 2019 // spotlight.africa
The National Homeless Network then urged the South African Human Rights Commission “to initiative an investigation into this matter” on grounds that “Homeless Rights are Human Rights”.
In a recent case, Ndifuna Ukwazi, a public interest law organisation in Cape Town, collaborated with local NGOs and homeless persons, seeking a legal precedent to prevent the criminalisation of homeless persons in cities and towns across South Africa. The time is now to assert that homeless persons have all the same rights, and deserve all the same dignities that all other humans in South Africa are entitled to.
Homeless communities and the coronavirus
What is it that causes local governments to treat homeless people like criminals? Can this also be the cause of government’s lack of clear solidarity and strategy with homeless and similarly vulnerable individuals in the face of the coronavirus? Why are homeless people treated as less than human?
What does it mean to be homeless in this time? Since the outbreak of the virus, concepts such as social distancing, quarantine and social isolation have become familiar. Practising social distancing and social isolation is encouraged for the sake of the well-being of all so as not to spread infections. “‘Social isolation”, in this sense, is quite different from the social isolation experienced by homeless persons.
In the case of homeless persons, living on the streets of our major cities and towns, the luxury of social distancing and quarantine is non-existent, because they simply need to sleep wherever they find a space. In Tshwane’s inner city, a municipal shelter owned by the municipality, but not managed by anyone for some years now, accommodates 700 people instead of the intended 150 persons. Many residents already live with compromised health, which will only be exacerbated by an outbreak of Covid-19 in this facility.
And yet, the city has no plan whatsoever to prevent such an eventuality in this shelter. Over and above, the officials responsible for dealing with homelessness, upon enquiry of how they would assist NGOs in reducing the risk for Tshwane’s homeless populations, demonstrate a complete lack of will, initiative or commitment, blaming their lack of action on the fact that the city is under administration – therefore they cannot make any decisions or commit any finances. Yet, we now know that every day counts in reducing the risk of infections from escalating.
Perhaps it is because these officials get their cue right from the top. Instead of making sure there is a strategy in every city and town in South Africa for those people who are most fragile and vulnerable, the National Minister of Social Development is out on the town, almost making fun of the serious nature of this crisis in her Twitter-feed. Her subsequent apology counts for nothing, as her posture has already revealed her utter distance from those she is supposed to look out for.
Now is the time for her to visit shelters, old-age homes, children’s homes and community-based care centres, to show her care and commitment, and collaborate with grass-root communities to build decisive and creative strategies. The president should not only scold her, but replace her, for our vulnerable populations deserve the very best who will look out for their safety and well-being.
Ndifuna Ukwazi (Reclaim the City) and others in the city of Cape Town, reframed the conversation to rather speak of “physical distancing – social solidarity”. They critique the idea of social distancing, as a time such as this really requires deep social solidarity.
How do we balance physical distancing, as a commitment not to contribute to the spread of the virus, with practising deep forms of social solidarity? How do we make sure our political leaders frame solutions not only serving the interests of the middle-classes, but also looking out in particular for the majority who do not have the luxury required to distance themselves effectively? While religious communities become innovative in their worshipping away from Church, mosque, synagogue or temple, how can they become equally innovative in their care of the poor and fragile in this time, as an act of worship?
Caring communities at this time
While some of us can work from home with relative ease, care-givers in residential facilities for homeless people, and outreach workers assessing the well-being of those living on the streets, cannot work for home. What will happen to homeless people if their only social infrastructure and access shut down? How can we be caring communities with homeless persons at this time? How do we protect those care-givers from getting sick, and support them while they continue to serve? And if homeless people get infected with the virus, where do they place themselves in quarantine? Who will look after them there? What is the plan?
“Real love has a plan”, wrote Harv Oostdyk many moons ago. If we consider homeless people as fellow human beings and equal citizens of ours, our love should include them as our highest priority. Many of them are older than 55 years. Many have co-morbidity in the form of lung illnesses, TB or generally weak immune systems. Now is perhaps the time to release vacant government buildings, not used by anyone, to become the shelters and transit centres we always lobby for, but seldom get. Minister De Lille announced that government buildings would be made available for quarantine and self-isolation. While this is an enormously positive development, who do she and her department liaise with to make sure that the most vulnerable in our cities also have access, even priority access, and how will such facilities be funded? Do homeless persons already have access?
If some good can come of Covid-19, it could be the creation of infrastructure that should have been created pre-Covid-19, to ensure the safety and well-being for every homeless individual, now, but also beyond this virus. If some good can come of Covid-19, it could be that we do not stockpile food, but expand our family to include those who are on the outside looking in. For them Covid-19 might not hold the same risk, as it does for the rest of the population, because their lives are at risk every night when they sleep on the street; and the shadow of death is imminently lurking behind every corner. Can we hear their cries, not just now, but always?
Those who are a part of National Homeless Network are sharing with each other how they can continue to offer a sense of community to homeless persons in a time of increasing isolation. As Wilna de Beer from the Tshwane Leadership Foundation writes: “…our mandate remains to be present with homeless communities and to ensure a sense of belonging…”.
They are preparing a safe residential facility for older women and men to be available by 1 April 2020; their “(O)utreach to vulnerable communities will continue to identify those who need special attention”; they will continue “a constant food supply in different venues in the city”, and they will work “with partners in challenging the City of Tshwane to make new shelter space available”.
Similar interventions are being developed in Durban, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Ekurhuleni, Buffalo City, and elsewhere. It is up to the rest of us to ask how best we can stand in solidarity with homeless persons and those at the forefront of welcoming them, at a time of great uncertainty.
May every politician, officials, activist, NGO leader, health executive, religious leader and ordinary citizen become creative in the way we embrace homeless women, men and children today – through listening carefully to those at the coalface – as an act of social solidarity, as an affirmation of our collective humanity, and as a response to many cries for love!