Haven for the homeless

JP Smith.

The plan to implement a safe space in the city centre for the homeless will only be in operation from May this year.

Last year the City of Cape Town said it would create an open-air, partially enclosed safe space to address the shortage of beds at shelters and the restrictive rules at such places.

JP Smith, mayoral committee member of safety and security; and social services, said the facility was to be opened between March and April. However, he recently told the CapeTowner that the planned date for operation is Tuesday May 1 as a temporary land use departure had to be secured for the use of the property. Culemborg has been identified for the safe space, which is designed for 230 people.

A survey of street people conducted in 2015 by the City showed that there were about 700 street people living in the CBD. Mr Smith said a large number of homeless people refused to go to shelters and that the safer spaces would have a more accommodating environment.

He said homeless would have access to showers and lockers, while social workers and NGOs would provide a range of services. The services will be provided by a contracting organisation.

“While some persons agree to relocate to shelters, 75% of persons living on the street prefer to remain on the street when offered social assistance to reintegrate into mainstream society. The result is that they often transgress existing by-laws,” Mr Smith said.

And while the safe space will serve as a transitional measure, as well as to keep homeless people from sleeping on the streets, concerns have been raised about the initiative, ranging from safety to involvement from other NGOs in the city centre.

The Cape Town Central police spokesperson, Captain Ezra October, expressed concern about criminals hiding among the homeless. “While we understand that the thinking behind this project is good, we have to think about the safety of our community. The reality is we have criminal elements hiding among the homeless.”

Mr Smith said the safe space and its perimeter will be manned 24 hours a day by eight Law Enforcement officers who will work on a shift basis.

“This will improve the overall security of the existing space, which currently has crime problems and which will benefit from the policing presence.”

CEO of the Haven Night Shelter, Hassen Khan, said the organisation has tendered for the contract to provide services at the safe space, but has also provided the City with an alternative proposal due to the concerns they had with some of the specifications of the pilot. For example, he said, the City suggested that screening homeless people who come to the facility be done at night. “We believe that at night, people should be sleeping. We said we want to create a calm environment at night, and have people fresh and willing during the day. We put this in our proposal.”

There was also another concern that they won’t have a cooking facility, and the suggestion that soup kitchens and feeding schemes must come to the site. “We disagree with this too, because we believe that when people come to the facility to receive screening and services, that they are well fed and feel good about themselves.

“They also want to hold a capacity of 230 people at the safe space, and the successful organisation is required to provide a full service to these people. We as the Haven has 15 shelters around the area, it will be good for us to scale up. “We are the second phase, so if a person is screened at the safe space and he wants to get off the street, they can come live at the Haven.”

Mr Khan added that there is a widespread concern that people need to be placed at the Haven. “We have social workers and managers who do this. The Haven is not just a living space, it’s part of a personal development plan. We are a social service, and the best people to evaluate whether a person can stay with us is our social workers.”

He said they are now waiting on the City to choose the successful candidate for the job. “We are sure we will find a resolution to these problems. We are now just waiting for the City to see who the successful candidate is. The facility will also still operate despite the water crisis Cape Town is facing, as the safe space was said to provide a space for street people to shower.”

However, Mr Smith said same measures that are being put in place across the metropole will apply, with the water allocation per person using the safe space in line with the current water restrictions.

Ian Veary, the social worker at the Carpenter Shop, a non-profit organisation who also provides services for homeless people, said a concern expressed by members of the Street Peoples Forum was that security agencies in the city centre may use the existence of the safe space to forcibly move people there. However, he said there is a need for such a space, not only because people refuse to go into shelters, but there are more homeless than there are beds in shelters. “No new shelters have been built in the last few years and the number of homeless is definitely increasing. In addition many people want to be in the city because of the opportunity to get jobs or in close proximity to earning opportunities as well as a range of services such as The Service Dining Room, The Carpenters Shop, Straatwerk and others that provide some relief to those living on the streets.”

With regards to the water crisis, Mr Veary said that the Carpenter Shop no longer operates showers but encourages a “bucket wash”We are currently making plans to install water tanks in order to make use of non-potable water for washing and cleaning purposes. The drought has had a severe effect on our services but we are trying ways in which to continue to provide dignity to our clients in the form of ablution facilities as well as opportunities for change.”

He said the safe space is a much needed addition to help people who have no place to stay and will offer additional resources to assist homeless people in Cape Town.

Jesse Laitinen, the director of Khulisa Solutions, which assists the homeless people by giving them work, said they chatted to about 100 street people about the safe space, and the results were that there was 100 percent support for the idea, provided that there will be basic control at the gates; that there is safe storing for their things; people can come through the night, but are registered; there is no drug use on the grounds; people are accepted even when under the influence of drugs and alcohol; families stay together, pest control and a communal cooking space. “It is a positive step to the right direction but we will have to see how it will be operated to say if it will work or not. We haven’t been consulted about it as yet. It is much needed and long time due.”