Homeless have rights too

Makale Ngwenya, Cape Town

South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world, most of this owing to our colonial and apartheid past and the structure of the economy that perpetuates poverty and inequality.

The country is undergoing rapid urbanisation which means cities are densifying without adequate housing and services for everyone. The result of this is, an ever increasing demand for housing and the lack of affordable options for low income households.

Cape Town is no exception to this; it is one of the most expensive cities to live in with very few affordable housing options for the working class and the poor. It is not difficult to see how someone who comes to the city in search of a job can easily find themselves homeless.

In the article, appropriated buildings otherwise known as “bad buildings” are often seen as the site of crime and grime, a sign of a deteriorating city. This is evidenced by the perception created by the article.

The problem with appropriated buildings is that they are often associated with illegality or criminal activities, which is often used to justify the brutal ways used by the police to “clean up” occupied buildings.

“Bad buildings” are never conceptualised as a form of shelter for those who are falling between the cracks of society and have nowhere else to go.

In a country with well-intentioned social policies and a Constitution that guarantees the right to access to shelter, poor and homeless people are denied the dignity of these core and fundamental rights in very explicit ways. We often see how homeless people are woken up in the morning by law enforcement in public spaces and how their existence in the city is policed. Most cities in the developing world have an urban planning agenda that seeks to eradicate informal settlements by evicting residents to areas often very far away from cities.

Rather than criminalising homelessness, homeless people should be seen as appropriating abandoned buildings and public spaces as an act of “self-help” and laying a claim to a city and a promise to a better life which is often the reason why people come to the city in the first place.

In the article, a homeless man says that living in a vacant building is better than being on the streets of the city centre. Living on the streets exposes homeless people to untold vulnerabilities and if a vacant building can be used as a form of shelter why should anyone live on the streets?

Middle class perceptions and the tone of the article portrays occupiers of derelict buildings, as criminals, drug addicts and social delinquents, this continues the dangerous stereotypes of viewing homeless people as problematic purely based on social standing.

By doing this, the article denies us, the readers, an opportunity to ask critical questions around policing and the allocation of resources to fight crime.

In addition to that, we should also be asking how homelessness can be addressed through meaningful social protection that goes beyond what we currently have.

Being poor and homeless is socially excluding, and harsh living conditions shape the perception of middle class people and simultaneously work to exclude residents of vacant buildings.

Being homeless is stigmatised and the article successfully proves this by portraying residents of the building in question in a bad light without appreciating that stigma and humiliation can be associated with dimensions of poverty and general diminished well-being.

Homelessness is not a criminal matter, it is a social matter. According to the police captain the crime in the area is strongly linked to the vacant building, (but) are the police conceding to not doing enough to fight crime? Crime, wherever it occurs, must be dealt with as crime.

Crime will happen despite the vacant building, as much as it happens in other wealthier parts of the city.

The women, men and children who live in vacant buildings are often victims of crime and they too are vulnerable to criminals that use the building as a hide-out. Which brings me to my next questions: Do homeless people have the right to live in vacant buildings? Do they have the right to be protected by the police? Do they have a right to shelter? And who do the empty spaces and public places they often sleep in belong to, if not residents of the city?

Lastly, the article is accompanied by a picture of a homeless person, was his or her permission sought?

Or is this a courtesy only reserved for middle-class people? The public gaze of homeless people reflects the glare by those who are not homeless; it creates a “them” and “us” situation.

Also, it is not clear in the article whether anyone has asked how the occupants of the building became homeless. This omission contributes to our lack of understanding around the complexity of the phenomenon of homelessness in our city.

The letter was sent to Cape Town Central police for a response, but by the time this edition went to print, we had not yet received one.