Durban Homelessness Census: 4 000 very different people in the streets and shelters

CATEGORY: Human and Social Development
DATE: 17 May 2016

Close to 4 000 people live on the street and in formal homeless shelters in the central Durban area, of which approximately 85% are male. A census conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in partnership with and funded by the eThekwini Municipality’s  Safer Cities Unit in February 2016,  found 1 959 persons living on the street and 1 974 persons living in formal  shelters.

What is regarded as “homelessness”? Chris Desmond, the lead investigator on the project, explains:  “We focused on formal shelters, relaxing the definition would have opened up a wide range of accommodation arrangements. There are abandoned buildings that have been occupied with space being let out at a fee; there are rooms above places of business that are let out on a daily basis; and over-crowded flats where space is rented out. Similarly, we only interviewed people we found sleeping on the street.  Using a broader definition of homelessness could include people living in informal settlements. If we are to include a broad definition of homeless to include all people in insecure housing, estimates of the size of the population would be far higher.”  

A team of researchers counted and surveyed people living on the streets between 03:00 and 06:30 am in the Durban central business district and the immediate surroundings. This ensured that the research team interviewed the right people. Those staying in formal shelters were interviewed during the early evening. More than half of the people surveyed originate from KZN (most often Durban), which is contrary to the common belief that people living on the street are mainly foreigners or people from elsewhere in the country.

The main reason people gave why they live on the street was that they came to Durban city in search of employment, but were unable to find suitable jobs. This tied in with the finding that most people on the street and in shelters were between the age of 25 and 34 years of age. Other common reasons cited for being on the street were family-related issues, including family disagreement and the death of close family.

A substantial portion of the street- and shelter-living populations have a place elsewhere that they refer to as home and report going home often. Of those that have a place they refer to as home but which they do not go home to, indicated that there were not enough resources at home and that returning there would place an unacceptable strain on limited resources. A number indicated that they were too embarrassed to return home, given that they have nothing to show for their time away.

Drug use by street and shelter-living populations is commonly referred to in the media. Frequent drug use, was reported by 60% of people living on the street and 50% of people living in shelters. Reports of hard drug use (drugs other than cannabis), were reported by a substantially smaller portion of the population – 33% of persons living on the street and 22% of those in shelters.

The HSRC has been working with a range of stakeholders in the study, including academia, street living people, business, metro police, representatives from local government and NGOs working in the area to foster collective ownership of the study. Two policy discussion meetings will be held in the next month with these stakeholder representatives to develop clear policy recommendations.

A seminar will be video casted today (17 May 2016) at 11.45 from the HSRC  in Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town,   that explores policy implications of research of this study and others that have been conducted elsewhere in the country.

Note to editors: For interviews, please contact Dr Chris Desmond on  e-mail:  cdesmond@hsrc.ac.za.