Articles of Interest: The issue of street people needs a balanced approach

The following article by Suzette Little appeared in the Cape Argus, 23 August 2016:

The issue of street people needs a balanced approach

One-sided reporting ignores homeless aid programmes already in place

WITH the founding of a new street people’s rights movement, NEHEMIA, and the regular platform provided to the Cape Argus’ homeless columnist Danny Oosthuizen, recent coverage devoted to the difficulties the city’s homeless face has taken an extremely biased turn. Negative sentiment surrounding the authorities has been given preference, with only limited space afforded to the city to address their claims and defend our programmes and policies.

The city has met with the organisation, and has established homeless people feel their human rights are being violated by the operations of the CCID, SAPS and the city’s law enforcement arms, and that there is not enough of a safety net for those who end up on the street.

In terms of the first point, these claims have been largely dealt with in the media by the City’s Directorate: Safety and Security. The city’s social support systems will be addressed here.

It is important to note the intention is not to undermine or deny the daily experiences of homeless people. The Street People Unit is under no illusions that life on the street is a deflating, disheartening, frustrating and often hopeless predicament.

What the city takes issue with is the one-sided story that has been presented by NEHEMIA and its broad coverage in the Cape Times and Cape Argus. Apart from inferring that the safety net for homeless people is inadequate, actual critique of current policies and support programmes has been discarded in favour of populist rhetoric.

We sympathise with the emotional distress homeless people have to bear, and understand the therapeutic value in having your voice heard, but it is imperative to balance the debate with an informed and objective assessment of the current state of affairs.

First, the city has a mandate to uphold the law, and the law does not allow a person to sleep or set up a shelter on the streets. On this point, unless the law changes, general enforcement will have to continue. What has been left unsaid, however, is that this dovetails with a social assistance programme dedicated to reintegrating homeless people into society.

Cape Argus_23 August

Our street people unit, which includes social workers, have engaged approximately 523 street people between last December and July 13 with offers of support and counselling to ease the transition back into their community support structure, and even short-term employment opportunities through the City’s Expanded Public Works Programme. However, to date, only 41 people have accepted these offers and even fewer have chosen to participate in the process (see table).

Taking the above into account, the unfair claims homeless people are disenfranchised and forgotten, are sensationalist and deprive the general public of much-needed context. It is disingenuous to claim the city does not care, and to sensationalise the ongoing tension with police when so many people opt not to accept the city’s assistance.

We admit there is scope to refine and improve on our interventions. This is a long-term process that Social Development and Early Childhood Development is already fully invested in with dedication and commitment.

The department has approached representatives of the homeless community to engage with us via our Street People Committee, a monthly forum where current practices can be evaluated and refined. This is an ideal platform where their voices can be heard, and we have invited NEHEMIA to participate in this committee.

The city is also working to roll out what will be known as Restoration Centres throughout the metro. These will be city facilities where street people will be accommodated while undergoing reintegration back into society. While these centres are being established, street people are housed by organisations participating in the Winter Readiness Programme. It is hoped the new restoration centre model will give the city more oversight to ensure the social assistance offered is of a high standard, and that the centres have the necessary capacity and facilities.

Finally, street people are a priority in terms of Expanded Public Works Programme employment opportunities, and Social Development has enquired with the national government as to whether they can be accommodated in the programme for extended periods in order to assist their reintegration.

The lasting rehabilitation of street people requires they trust the process and are committed to the actions required to deconstruct their street identity – in some cases this may mean overcoming addictions to drugs and alcohol, or even participating in programmes to improve their mental and emotional well-being.

There seems to be an entrenched belief among the majority of street people that they will never get off the streets, and should accept their current circumstances – such as sleeping on the street or begging for food, money, and clothes.

The city, however, is of the firm belief it is in the best interest of the homeless to be reintegrated into society. We, therefore, through the dovetail approach between Law Enforcement and Social Development, are trying to funnel these destitute people into a support programme that will expand and brighten their horizons, rather than making their current circumstances more comfortable. The city cannot force homeless people to get help, but to renege on our commitment and mandate to enforce the law would be a disservice to the majority of residents, and would be of debateable long-term benefit to the homeless themselves.

Our programmes rely on trust relationships between the city and the homeless people. Caricaturing the city as heartless and only protecting the interests of the rich, is wholly untrue and subverts this trust. This narrative makes it less likely for homeless people to find the courage to reach out to us for help. In this regard we are calling on all organisations involved in the upliftment of street people to commit to a constructive working relationship and to make use of our existing channels to air concerns.

If we are going to be as effective as we can be at reducing the number of homeless people over the long-term, it is imperative we sing from the same hymn sheet. The city is doing all we can with the resources at our disposal, but we need the homeless people to work with us. We are putting the structures in place to facilitate their upliftment, and we want them to make use of these, and to engage with us through the established Street People Committee.

Residents wanting to assist, are requested to make contributions to the city’s Give Responsibly programme, rather than giving directly to the homeless people.

We’ve seen many Capetonians have very big hearts and are always ready to assist street people, especially during the colder months. However, we want to ensure their contributions serve to assist recipients not just for a day or two, but in the long-term as well.

Giving handouts directly to street people simply perpetuates the cycle, encouraging people to remain on the streets. We can make a far greater impact by rather supporting the organisations that assist street people in finding job opportunities, reuniting them with their families, and ultimately giving them a second chance. More info can be found at www.giveresponsibly.co.za.

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