The Government of National Unity is tasked with homeless policy discussion paper

Winter is on our doorstep and homelessness is on the rise in South Africa. pictures by ANA

Winter is on our doorstep and homelessness is on the rise in South Africa. pictures by ANA

Published Jun 22, 2024


As we welcome in our new administration, we must also remember that the previous administration had commissioned a green paper on developing a national policy on homelessness, and that we have a duty to ensure this policy is informed by fact and a lived experience.

This is a first and so it is important to get the reality and lived experience of homelessness out there in order to combat the many preconceived ideas and false narratives that currently dominate these discussions.

My message to all those that truly want to help address homelessness and advocate for a workable and effective policy on addressing homelessness is that you challenge ignorance and empower yourself with true knowledge about homelessness.

There are enough insights, strategies, and facts that can assist in debunking misleading narratives.

Throughout the country, we are seeing increasing calls for the criminalisation and banishment of homeless people.

While housing solutions remain slow to materialise, communities are moving resources into getting homeless people out of sight. This shift in policy will exacerbate the problem, not solve it.

There are several reasons for this shift. Many see the growing homelessness crisis as a public nuisance rather than the humanitarian crisis that it is.

Organic, local opposition, and well-funded negative propaganda campaigns reinforce harmful beliefs.

In this time of unprecedented polarisation, while a much-needed policy is being discussed, changing the narrative surrounding homelessness has never been more important.

The proposed strategy to reduce rough sleeping recently released for comment by the City of Cape Town is an example of how wrongly the realities of homelessness can be interpreted, if one looks at the remedies being suggested in that document.

To overcome the barriers to solving homelessness, we need narratives that reframe our cultural and political conversations about homelessness. We must make the truth louder.

Shifts in narratives and perceptions must be part of a broader change in our culture, not just a campaign.

I believe that solving homelessness starts with addressing poverty.

Living wages, accessible health care, affordable housing, and tenant protections keep people from becoming homeless.

I believe that both rapid rehousing, interim housing and permanent supportive housing are necessary to help people move into independent housing.

I believe that bureaucratic barriers and the criminalisation of homelessness make it harder for homeless people to access services and housing.

I believe that the narrative that all people entering and experiencing homelessness are drug addicts and criminals is not only damaging and counter-productive but also completely false. It also takes our attention away from the reality that drug addiction and criminality can and more often than not is as a result of being exposed to extended periods of experiencing homelessness.

I believe that homeless and formerly homeless people must be included in decision-making processes when discussing homelessness strategies, policy and solutions.

I believe that public education and a narrative change can create the political will to drive policy change.

What are we really talking about when we talk about homelessness?

Homelessness isn’t a single problem nor does it exist in isolation. It is not as a result of anything the particular individual has or has not done.

It’s a symptom of many problems. Policy choices about health, housing, policing, discrimination, and labour have helped shape this crisis as has ostracisation and abuse.

But as a sector, when we talk about homelessness, we’re too often starting from a place that isolates homelessness as an issue from these other forces.

When advocating towards a sensible and effective policy on homelessness we have to frame the issue: how can we present the problem and solution in the best possible light?

What is included and excluded from the conversation?

I have found that despite the fact that I devote time to framing the realities of my homeless experience, the public I often address mostly comes to these conversations with their own pre-existing ideas.

These implicit frameworks might come from other policy issues, political preferences or even the demographics and personal experiences of the individual.

Most importantly, these personal and local issues are often determining factors in how communities react to proposed projects and policies on homelessness.

Often loud and angry opposition to solutions does not come about in a vacuum.

I have realised that even those experiencing homelessness and those with lived experience like myself have to examine the intersections of homelessness and other issues for us to better understand, differentiate, and speak to the concerns of those we speak to as we do the important work of building support for the solutions we need.

* Carlos Mesquita is a homeless activist and also works as a researcher for the Good party in the Western Cape Legislature.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media

Cape Argus

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