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Homelessness and COVID-19: Political, institutional and theological capacities and priorities

Two weeks into the national lockdown, media reports have emerged about how various towns and cities in South Africa are responding to the needs of the homeless amid the real threat of contamination, political positioning, and collaborative engagement between government and civil society. Stephan de Beer from the National Homeless Network describes some of what he has observed and reflects on the moral duty of people of faith to reach out to the homeless, and all vulnerable people, during this time of crisis.

Just over two weeks ago, the National Homeless Network addressed a letter to the President and the Chair of the National Task Team for COVID-19. We asked for eight interventions on behalf of the homeless community on South Africa’s streets.

That night, the President addressed the nation. He specifically addressed the plight of homeless persons during this time, and his commitment to provide temporary shelter. In subsequent addresses during, he reiterated the particular vulnerabilities of this group of people.

Our rather small Network would love to think that the President read our letter and statement and decided to sneak an expressed concern for the homeless into his speech. Of course, we do not know whether his mentioning of this community is indeed because of our letter. Yet, suddenly it was more central on the nation’s agenda of the nation than at any time before that. In different platforms we could refer to the President’s desire to see shelters for homeless persons as an expression of social solidarity;  balanced by government’s intention to create and maintain physical distance and enable self-isolation, even for those who ordinarily cannot.

EXPLORE — Homelessness and COVID-19, a repository that documents South Africa’s response to the plight of homeless people within the context of the pandemic

And yet, the President’s commitment to see temporary shelters was not accompanied by a blueprint of how this would be rolled out on the ground. As a result, cities and towns tackled this call in very disparate ways. In some cities, the lack of prior collaboration between the municipality and the homeless sector now clearly surfaced. Some politicians and officials became overnight ‘experts’ on homelessness, responding to the crisis in ways that are irresponsible and disrespectful, both of homeless persons and the homeless sector. The silos between local government departments, the lack of communication between different spheres of government, the dismissal of the homeless sector and their experience and expertise all contributed to slow and often inappropriate responses.

Response of cities and towns across South Africa

 In some cities, the South African Police Services and Metropolitan Police rounded people up and “dumped” them at sites, often not ready to welcome or accommodate anyone at such short notice.

READ Life for eThekwini homeless more bearable amid COVID-19 lockdown, 31 March 2020 // Eye Witness News

In eThekwini, the Deputy Mayor and Deputy City Manager led from the front, and created 10 sites with 100 people each as temporary shelters, within two days. They did this in close collaboration with local community and faith-based organisations.

In Cape Town there was a rather holistic plan forged between members of the Street People’s Forum and the City of Cape Town, just to be abruptly overturned by individual politicians in a forceful manner, wanting to house people at a sportsground, with little input from the sector that works with homeless people daily. When a church-based group got ready to open a small shelter, the City stopped them saying the church was not allowed to do so.

In Mangaung, the City placed homeless persons in a resort outside the city, without consultation with the homelessness sector. Although the option provided seems like a very good alternative to life on the streets, and an opportunity for self-isolation better than many of the large sites with large concentrations of people, the exclusion of those NGOs and churches working with homeless persons is questionable.

In Johannesburg several shelters were opened, either city-run, or managed by non-profit institutions. Although there was some collaboration between the city and the province, and between the city and the Johannesburg Homeless Network, it seems that much of the work still remained in silos, and – according to a leader in the Network – organisations tend to want to make a name for themselves, instead of strengthening their response to the crisis through a more collaborative approach.

READ — The plight of Cape Town’s homeless goes political, 10 April 2020 // Times Live

Tshwane had a roller-coaster ride. What started at the Caledonian Stadium – where more than 1,000 homeless persons congregated in a space not conducive for physical distancing or self-isolation, without being ready to offer tented accommodation, food or sanitation for such large numbers of people – slowly steadied into a diversified response with a number of bigger sites run by the city, and several church- or community-run shelters. The City and the Tshwane Homelessness Forum are learning to collaborate and share in ways that are mutually enriching, but not without challenges.

A homeless shelter in Tshwane // Homelessness and COVID-19

Lessons learnt and the need for ongoing cooperation

In sharing initial lessons from these cities – and different smaller-scale responses in smaller cities and towns across the country – the National Homeless Network are starting to register important lessons.

1. The fault lines, or strengths, of before COVID-19, became accentuated during this time.

2. Implementation of appropriate responses happened quickest where high-level politicians and officials balanced commitment to real solutions, with collaboration from civil society as equal partners.

3. The lack of collaborative, cross-sectoral approaches slowed the successful implementation and often led to inappropriate responses, whilst collaborative attempts incubated innovative solutions.

4. Local governments often lacked the capacity to manage strategic crises, and – instead of drawing on the resources of tertiary institutions, private sector and the community, in a way that forges equal partnerships – engages in petty power politics that are never helpful, but actually fatal at such a time as this.

5. Some of what could not happen for 20 years, now happened in three days. New bed spaces were found for 1000s of homeless persons. People who lacked access to health care and social services are suddenly first in queue. It shows that it is possible, if there is political commitment, collaboration, and a sense of urgency.

READ “Housing, the front line defence against the COVID-19 outbreak,” says UN expert, 18 March 2020 // Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

The fault lines, if not creatively removed through the opportunity of this crisis, will continue beyond COVID-19. Collaboration between government and the homeless now may give rise to new confidence to tackle homelessness in decisive and transformative ways going forward.

Some of what could not happen for 20 years, now happened in three days.

The same applies to Universities and other institutions. The apathy and isolation of Universities before COVID-19 continued during this time. Activist scholars are at the forefront of many attempts to find solutions in different cities, not in visible but often in behind-the-scenes ways. But the institutions themselves were locked in. Thousands of bed spaces, with proper kitchen, ablution and shower facilities exist in every residential tertiary institution in all our cities. University Executives failed to take leadership in opening up some of these spaces – one building per institution even – to temporarily shelter homeless persons. This could have been one of the most efficient and effective resources to create short-term alternative accommodation to very vulnerable people.

Some homeowners’ associations called the police to force homeless persons out, speaking of them as criminals and unhygienic risks to their own well-being. In Tshwane, one homeowners’ association showed an alternative, identifying a public park, got permission from the city, pitched a tent, and welcomed 50 older homeless persons.

A faith response

Theologically, this time invites churches and people of faith to wrestle anew with hard theological questions. What is the meaning of Lent, the Cross and Easter in the context of global vulnerability and interdependency? Do we like the cue of social isolation so much that we just deepen our isolation, now promulgated by government even? What do we make of the disruptive practices of solidarity with the poor, incarnational presence, humanization, conscientization and liberation, when we are called to distance ourselves in isolation?

They collectively shared in the risk of embracing the stranger; the risk of not knowing what will happen at the end of lockdown; the risk of facing Jesus afresh.

Some churches contemplated opening their doors for a few days; asking difficult questions to which there were not always answers; trying to reduce risks which could not be guaranteed, because following Jesus to the poor was always going to be risky.

Some churches, also asking discerning questions first, opened their doors: some in the inner city; one in a gated community to much agony of some community members; a few in middle-income suburbs.

Some churches found new theological priorities for themselves, even without it being expressly articulated; and others found capacities they did not know they had. Still others, unable to open their doors to invite strangers in, opted to invest generously to enable others to open theirs. They collectively shared in the risk of embracing the stranger; the risk of not knowing what will happen at the end of lockdown; the risk of facing Jesus afresh.

It is a time for self-reflection: What are our priorities? Who are our priorities? How do we foster new capacities, through creative collaborations, to match our priorities? How does our deep connection to the cross enable us to push through the darkness, collectively, until the isolation breaks, and light shines through?

* 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.