World Homeless Day may not mean much to some, but for those living on the street, it commemorates their often excruciating daily existence. A growing issue is a tense relationship between street dwellers and Cape Town’s law enforcement officers, who, some homeless claim, have little respect for their bodies or property.
To commemorate World Homeless Day, the City of Cape Town’s Social and Early Childhood Development Department held a dialogue with the city’s homeless as well as NGOs working with street people.
The event, on Thursday 10 October at the Bellville South Community Centre, was aimed at finding solutions to the social issues faced by people on the street. However, it became a platform for those living rough to air their grievances about the City’s law enforcement officers and the shelter system.
“The law enforcement have no respect for us,” shouted a homeless woman from Lansdowne.
She claimed law enforcement officers have, on numerous occasions, sexually harassed her and confiscated her belongings.
“They bring a truck and take our IDs; now I can’t look for a job,” she complained.
The issuing of fines to street dwellers was also a top concern, with some questioning how a penniless person can afford a fine as steep as R1,500.
This ongoing issue was sparked in June this year when the City of Cape Town came under fire for enforcing a public spaces by-law from 13 years ago, enabling street people to be fined for various offences, such as erecting structures on walkways, lighting fires, or making excessive noise.
Community Services and Health Mayco member Zahid Badroodien told Daily Maverick the by-law is under review.
“Before there is a fining process, social development must come in, offer opportunities and connect people to our partners,” said Badroodien, explaining that if this process fails, then law enforcement should be called in to deal with offenders.
He added that the by-law, “applies to everyone” and is not targeting the homeless.
Badroodien said fewer than 1% of the total number of fines issued had been issued to street people.
The Department of Community Services and Health said it could not answer queries about fines and law enforcement as it handled only social development issues.
But more importantly, the City is still dealing with a fines-related lawsuit brought against it by seven homeless people.
One homeless woman, who is a transgender sex worker, felt discriminated against by law enforcement and claimed the City’s fieldworkers were complicit in officers’ behaviour.
“The fieldworkers come with them when they fine us,” she said.
Badroodien said the Street People Policy from 2013 was also under review.
“All of our efforts need to address the street person as a whole person,” said Badroodien, explaining that the City’s programmes must assess the reasons why a person becomes homeless, give them opportunities to heal, upskill and eventually get back on their feet.
“We’re giving you a means to then not only sustain yourself, but your family as well.” –DM