What happens to Cape Town’s homeless as lockdown is eased?

NEWS | Jenni Evans and Nicole McCain | 16 May 2020

The City of Cape Town said it can no longer force homeless people to live in shelters now that the lockdown has eased from Level 5 to 4, denying it is dumping people as it shuts down its Strandfontein camp.

This after the Muizenberg Improvement District (MID) said in a press release a group of homeless people was simply dumped as the shelter in Strandfontein works towards closure on 20 May.

According to the MID, there was a protest in the seaside town at 08:30 on Saturday by homeless people who were living in the Muizenberg park near the police station without food, water and ablution facilities.

It viewed the situation as the authorities’ abdication of responsibility for their care during the Covid-19 crisis, and said it had not succeeded in being able to discuss the matter with the City.

“These people were either brought to the area or returned independently after the City decided to close the controversial Strandfontein facility [on 20 May]. Around 40 people were literally dumped in the park following Level 4 on 1 May,” the MID contended.

“This is fast becoming a major health risk to the homeless and surrounding community as too are the scores of desperate people begging on the streets and thereby placing themselves and the broader community at risk of Covid-19 infection as they flout the lockdown regulations.”

The Strandfontein camp has been controversial from the start, with critics saying residents were living too close to each other, with no personal autonomy, that it was not safe, and that opposition politicians were not allowed in for oversight.

Among those questioning the future of the site is ANC MPL Gladys Baku Baku Vos who recently recovered from Covid-19.

She said simply letting people go was like a “health time bomb” and residents should be placed in alternate shelters.

In the meantime, groups of homeless people have been seen around Cape Town’s pavements and parks again since 1 May.

At least one case of Covid-19 was detected in an individual who moved from the Strandfontein site to a smaller shelter, and an NGO was being assisted in managing the situation, according to a City statement earlier this week.

Meanwhile, makeshift tents with their guy ropes attached to trees for stability and tiny warrens of cardboard houses have returned to the centre islands of dual carriageways, with blankets being spread out to air again in fields as the sun rises.

The City said people were moving out of Strandfontein of their own free will, and that had already been discussed with the MID on 5 May.

“The MID was informed that the homeless, who had made their way back to the park, were the same individuals who opted to leave the Strandfontein temporary emergency accommodation,” said the mayoral committee member for community services and health, Zahid Badroodien.

“The City had indicated to these homeless individuals that we would assist them into smaller shelters and that they should remain at the emergency accommodation facility where they were able to access showers, three meals a day, psychosocial programmes and daily medical services,” he added.

“Those who left the facility refused further assistance from the City and this was clearly explained to the MID who have not appreciated this information and are now using the homeless to score points in their community.”

In the meantime, 356 people have said they wanted to carry on living in a safe space instead of returning to the streets.

The City is working on extending existing shelters by creating additional bed spaces as well as the long-term development of safe spaces across the city in identified communities.

It said it had always been clear the accommodation in Strandfontein was temporary, and it was not closing because of alleged human rights abuses as claimed.

“They were informed that the facility was always of a temporary nature and that the City would prepare smaller shelters and move the homeless community at Strandfontein into those which we are now ready to do,” said Badroodien.

“The MID is incorrect to allege that a safe space would have been erected by the 20th as this deadline was for the closure of the Strandfontein facility and not the implementation of a safe space, which is a longer-term solution.

“The City’s social development and early childhood development department is working closely with shelters where spaces have been secured at the Haven Night Shelter, Oasis Reach for Your Dream, Ubuntu Circle of Courage, TASP, Cape Flats YMCA and the Happy Valley Shelter.”

Individuals who accepted further City assistance remains at the Strandfontein temporary emergency accommodation and they will be moved to prefabricated structures at existing shelters.

“Many persons who were housed at Strandfontein have opted to return to the streets – some of them have already returned to their areas of origin. It is not illegal to be homeless. The Level 4 lockdown regulations remove the authority of the state to evacuate a homeless person from any place to a shelter as a necessary precaution to preserve life.

“This goes to say that if a homeless person chooses not to access a shelter, the City cannot place an individual in a shelter without their consent.”

In the meantime, the City’s Homeless Agency Committee offers rehabilitation services, upskilling programmes, reintegration and reunification with families as well as short-term employment opportunities so they may engage in a sustainable way to exit homelessness.