Busting myths about homelessness: What you should know

NEWS | By Caryn Gootkin | 09 October 2020

10 October is World Homeless Day, which highlights the needs of homeless people. What better time, then, to sort fact from fiction in the ongoing battle between homeless people and those who feel they have no place in ‘their’ neighbourhoods.

Shelters are free and freely available

Shelters are not free; homeless people are charged between R500 and R2,000 per month, and are forced to leave if they can’t pay. Vouchers don’t guarantee a place because there is also a dire shortage of shelter beds. Even using the City of Cape Town numbers, which I believe are understated, there are not enough shelter beds. Whichever way you define homelessness, it is patently obvious that there are far more homeless people than facilities to help them.

Homeless people refuse to go to shelters with no good reason

Many homeless people are reluctant to go to shelters because:

  • they are often disrespected by shelter staff;
  • couples and families are often separated;
  • many shelters don’t provide employment or skills development;
  • belongings get stolen;
  • people report catching diseases, fleas and lice;
  • many people, especially women, are abused;
  • some places discriminate based on gender or sexual orientation;
  • recovering addicts are tempted by drugs freely available in some shelters;
  • residents battling mental illness or addiction aren’t specifically supported;
  • many shelters don’t serve meals or serve inadequate and unhealthy meals;
  • they perpetuate homelessness because they offer temporary accommodation (generally three to six months) without equipping people for independence.

Giving money/food/clothing encourages homelessness

In that moment of human connection, you allow a person to feel seen while meeting their basic human right to food and dignity. What is overlooked is that feeding schemes serve as touchpoints at which homeless people learn to trust those regularly providing food, which is vital to build relationships that allow for development work.

They are too lazy to get jobs

Many do have jobs, but still can’t afford housing. Almost everyone I know wants a job – but without ID documents, fixed addresses and feeling dignified, it is very difficult to be taken seriously or find a job.

They are all criminals

The only crime committed by most homeless people is being homeless, which is criminalised by municipal bylaws that punish them for performing natural human functions in public – sleeping, eating, excreting. Criminal records make it much harder to find work. There are, of course, homeless criminals, but there are also many criminals in homes.

People choose homelessness

The illusion of choice belies a deep misunderstanding of the causes of homelessness. Choice is always relative to a person’s available options, and the poorer you are the fewer choices you have. Nobody chooses to live on the street when they have a warm, safe and comfortable alternative.

A problem as complex as homelessness has many varied causes – each person’s circumstances are unique but there are common themes, like broken/dysfunctional families; domestic or gang violence; addiction (both a cause and a coping mechanism once); unemployment; mental illness; rejection of sexual orientation; lack of affordable social housing; rural/urban migration; disability or ill health; intergenerational poverty; inadequate support networks; and the spatial distancing legacy of apartheid.

Why you should care

The Bill of Rights affords all humans the same basic rights, including the right to housing, healthcare, food, water and social security. As all tiers of government are failing the homeless population (and many others), it behoves us as moral beings to help our fellow South Africans. I am strongly influenced in the work I do at Souper Troopers by the Jewish values of tzedakah and tikkun olam. Tzedakah is often translated as charity but the root of the word is tzedek – justice. Tikkun Olam, roughly translated as “repair the world”, is based on an ancient philosophical belief that it is incumbent on us to take responsibility for healing what is wrong in the world.

In all religions, giving charity or doing social justice work is considered an ethical obligation. We call on community leaders, including our own, to stand with us publicly and honour their moral obligations towards the less fortunate.

How you can help

There are no easy solutions to complex problems. Through six years of working with homeless people, we have learnt that one-dimensional interventions are of limited help. The key to helping a person holistically is having a trained and trusted fieldworker spend one-on-one time with each client discussing their history, their skills and their ambitions. Then, together, they can take the necessary steps.

Sometimes, all that is needed is money to get back to their family in a different province; often, though, people need long-term support to heal from their wounds before they can move on.

Support non-profit organisations that offer this level of individual mentorship and guidance. Souper Troopers has seen amazing results from our field worker in the Atlantic Seaboard area, who is loved and respected by all her clients. She arranges IDs and other documents, helps with social grants, arranges transport, liaises with medical professionals, enrols clients in rehabilitation programmes, helps ease past traumas, helps each individual set achievable goals, prepares them for job interviews and accompanies them to important meetings.

With greater networks of support – financial and otherwise, we can expand, make a lasting difference in many lives, and contribute to a just and dignified life for all. DM

Caryn Gootkin is a lawyer, wordsmith and speaker of truth to power. She is fundraising coordinator for Souper Troopers, an NPO that helps homeless people take the steps necessary to achieve their goals.