Letter to the editor: In support of a radical overhaul, not balanced approach

On Tuesday, 23 August 2016 the Cape Argus published an article The issue of street people needs a balanced approach in which mayoral committee member for the City of Cape Town’s Social Development and Early Childhood Development, Suzette Little takes issue with what she terms “the extreme bias” and “negative sentiment” of recent media coverage of issues faced by street-based people in Cape Town. In Danny’s Diary of 30 August 2016 regular Cape Argus columnist Danny Oosthuizen responds to some of these allegations and highlights some of the systemic issues which Little overlooks in her article.

As the Street People’s Forum we wholeheartedly support Oosthuizen’s reply and want to underscore some of the points he raises:

On collaboration:

Little invites “representatives of the homeless community” to a monthly Street People Committee and calls for “organisations … to commit to a constructive working relationship and to make use of our existing channels to air concerns.” As Oozthuizen points out, this is the first we’ve heard of such a committee’s existence. Given her department’s dismal history of “constructive” engagement with the sector this invitation smacks of posturing as the “existing channels” have become a pointless waste of time for NGOs.

The department has ignored repeated requests for information such as

  1. The City’s 2014/2015 research report on homelessness,
  2. An evaluation and financial statement of the 2015 Winter Readiness Campaign,
  3. Details of the City’s 2016 Winter Readiness Programme.

It has continued to provide information in the media that contradicts the experiences of street-based people and the NGOs that work with them despite numerous attempts to help the City understand these problems.

On bias:

For Little to accuse Oosthuizen and street-based people’s rights movement NEHEMIA of bias ignores the fact that they represent the corrective voice against the bias of the City’s over-simplification. The Cape Argus should be congratulated for giving an unprecedented platform to the voice of street-based people in the press. Her defensiveness misses the opportunity to listen to the people she, and her department, serves.

On the rule of law:

Oosthuizen points out that Little retreats behind the City’s nuisance by-laws prohibiting such things as urinating or sleeping in public but in absence of alternatives such as accessible public toilets, adequate humane accommodation and so on, it is immoral to prosecute people for being human even if they do so in public space. This punitive, rather than developmental approach is at the heart of the policies that govern the programmes and services of the department.

Little affirms the need to improve the City’s services. She quotes “evidence” that the City tries hard but that there is little uptake by street-based people of the City’s offer of assistance. She fails to see that the services offered are ineffective and fail to provide relevant, appropriate and nuanced solutions to complex situations.

What is needed is not tweaking or improving of services but a fundamental overhaul; not “a balanced approach” but a radical re-imagining not just of services but of the policies that shape these services.

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