By Kotie Geldenhuys
Selected photos by Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp
People sleeping on sheets of cardboard under dirty old blankets on pavements or on dark park benches are a familiar sight when driving through the suburbs late at night. Their possessions often consist of a plastic bag containing clothes, a blanket and a few sheets of cardboard. They have become part of the urban landscape, so much so that we seldom pay much attention to them. But being homeless also means having no food, so we often see these people walking from one dustbin to another, looking for something to eat. Being without a home must be an incredibly difficult situation for anyone to be in, since our houses are our safe havens - irrespective of whether your house is a luxury home in a suburb or an informal shack in a township.
Homelessness is neither new, nor is it restricted to one country. For centuries, there have been homeless people and due to the inherently chaotic nature of many homeless people's lives, they are often victims (and perpetrators) of crime. Poverty and instability are common themes in the lives of those who do not have a (permanent) roof over their head.
Homelessness is a term with various meanings and can differ from country to country. It may be a temporary, periodic or permanent situation, but since there is no universal consensus on what homelessness means, it is difficult to get a workable definition.
The United Nations Statistical Division categorises homelessness into two broad groups namely:
- primary homelessness, which includes living on streets or without a shelter or living quarters; and
- secondary homelessness, which includes having no place of usual residence and moving frequently between various types of accommodation (including dwellings, shelters or other living quarters) as well as residing in long-term "transitional" shelters or similar arrangements for the homeless (www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Housing/ homelessness.pdf).
The Tshwane Homelessness Policy of 2013 defines street homeless people "as all those people who live on the streets (on pavements, under bridges, in bushes or next to rivers); who fall outside a viable social network of assistance; and who are therefore not able to provide themselves with shelter at a given time or place" (De Beer et al, 2015).
How big is the problem?
Despite the fact that we see homeless people almost daily, it is difficult to find any South African statistics about homeless people. The absence of reliable statistics about homeless people and their situation makes it difficult to understand and address the problem adequately and coherently. An earlier study on street homelessness in South Africa done by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) between 2006 and 2010 suggests that there may be between 100 000 and 200 000 street homeless people in South Africa's urban and rural districts which includes adults and children. In 2011, Statistics South Africa suggested that there are 6244 street homeless people in the City of Tshwane (De Beer et al, 2015). Capalandanda (2016) mentions that, according to a study which the HSRC published in June 2016, 1959 homeless people are sleeping on the streets in Durban, while 1974 are sleeping in shelters. According to the City of Cape Town's Social Development and Early Childhood Development Directorate's survey done in 2015, the city has 7383 homeless people, of whom 4862 live and sleep on the streets and 2521 sleep in shelters. The total figure for the homeless however excludes those living along the mountains because of the dangers that the City anticipated in running the survey there (Chiguvare and Gontsana, 2015).
Knowing how many people are living on the streets remains a matter of estimation since homeless people are always in transit, having no fixed address where they can be contacted for census purposes. The problem is not unique to South Africa, since only a few countries include homeless people in their census surveys (http://wiredspace.wits.ac.za/bitstream/10539/1448/3/ 02Chapter2.pdf). Sadiki (2016) argues that the homeless population is constantly changing as more people become homeless, while some of those who were homeless return to some form of secure accommodation.
Causes of homelessness
Hill (2016) stresses that the causes of homelessness are multifaceted and complex. Current thinking is that the cause of homelessness is an interaction between individual and structural factors, including the presence or absence of a safety net. Sadiki (2016) argues that homelessness is the result of interaction between socio-structural causes and individual factors as well as a series of prolonged crises and mixed opportunities. One tends to think that it is only the poor who are homeless, but that is far from the truth as homelessness can and does happen to anyone.