SKELETONS AT THE FEAST a review of street homelessness

Homelessness on the streets has been of concern to governments and civil society for hundreds of years, and the number of homeless people tends to rise when economic conditions take an adverse turn. Emphasising questions of access to housing, livelihoods and services, CATHERINE CROSS, JOHN SEAGER et al question whether in South African street homelessness can be eliminated in the foreseeable future. 

Homelessness on the streets in South Africa is a slow-moving tragedy that arouses anxiety in government and

   

civil society, but one that is overshadowed by the size of the population in shack housing. As unemployment has risen, larger numbers of the poor are living on the margins and are dependent on temporary work or social grants; from there, many have descended into true homelessness.

The study suggests that there may be from 100 000 to 200 000 truly homeless street people in South Africa's urban and rural districts, including adults and children.

South Africa is not well prepared for increasing homelessness. Compared to the situation of people in shack settlements, little is known about the street homeless and there are no formal statistics. In their extreme poverty, isolation and loss of societal resources, the truly homeless exactly fit the description ‘the destitute', and are worse off than people living in shacks.

A profile of homelessness

The HSRC study on homelessness, conducted over the last four years, adopted a definition of homelessness that emphasises living ‘on the street'.

The destitute street homeless are a small and particular group as compared with the much larger, and less poor shack population. The study suggests that there may be from 100 000 to 200 000 truly homeless street people in South Africa's urban and rural districts, including adults and children. Johannesburg has the largest and most differentiated population. Estimates of street children suggested more than 3 000 live on the streets, which is a significant number.

A previous HSRC study noted that not all people on the streets are actually homeless in the sense of having no shelter of their own. Street livelihoods can be surprisingly effective, pulling in people from surrounding settlements. These include piecework for local businesses, begging, foraging activity and sub-survivalist informal sector work, which all need business activity and a moneyed passing clientele.

Interviews with local administrators underline the point that South African cities have tended to take uncompromising positions on suppressing visible street homelessness.

This study also identified street people who live on the city streets temporarily for street trading, and before commuting home to distant rural settlements. These non-homeless categories represent a significant share of the visible street population.

Homelessness, policies and the city

Policy-makers regard the effect of visible street homelessness on the prospects of economic investment in the metro core zones as negative. The resulting clash between the rights and needs of the urban homeless poor to access street livelihoods in the central business district (CBD) where they concentrate, and the cities' demand for a poverty-free CBD to encourage investment, has made a consistent homelessness policy difficult to find.

Together with the lack of basic information, this conflict has led to societal paralysis when it comes to addressing the homelessness problem. There is no consensus on what the effective options for intervention would be, and little information on the homeless population itself, leading to a gap in formal policy.

Interviews with local administrators underline the point that South African cities have tended to take uncompromising positions on suppressing visible street homelessness.

Our study has shown that government welfare grants reach some homeless, preventing some from falling into street life and supporting others to live in shelters, but so far there is no clear sign that free housing and infrastructure are reducing the numbers of street people already homeless.

Besides asking whether poverty is the only cause, we also need to ask why the street homeless are not living in shacks, which should offer a cheap and generally available alternative.

The international picture

It is vital to note that few, if any, nations have succeeded in eliminating homelessness, regardless of the size and reach of their social safety net. Homelessness remains a problem in the European Union, Canada, Japan and Australia - all highly developed countries which provide wide-ranging social care and work strenuously to eradicate poverty.

It therefore seems clear that poverty alone is not the problem. Urbanisation in the developing world, touched off by urban industrialisation, rural poverty and population growth, is leading to large urban-directed population shifts comparable to South Africa's. For the destitute homeless in India and elsewhere, very large street populations receive some official tolerance.

The critical issue is regular access to the central cities' livelihoods: failing this, homeless people cleared out of the cities simply continue to return.

Such approaches raise issues of how far, given improved management, South Africa's metro urban centres might be able to tolerate a street homeless presence of the kind sustained in, for example,  California cities.

Homelessness and housing

South Africa's street homeless do not appear to have the same access to employment and to government benefits as does the shack population. Other studies identify a resisting core group which commonly rejects attempts at help.

The usual tools of household accumulation in the form of secure housing and incomes are not easily available to the street homeless. Very few said they had grants or were on housing lists. Though entry to a shelter would provide an address and most have tried shelters in the past, most respondents said they had no identity documents and few had any ongoing relation with government programmes.

Meanwhile, the cities' administrative stance tends to remain distant or hostile, relying largely on police clearances to deal with the sector of the homeless population who are unwilling or unable to accept civil society help and enter shelters.

Without more social workers specifically tasked with outreach and support for the street homeless in dealing with administrative offices, it is not easy to see how the street constituency would be able to become regular beneficiaries of subsidy housing, and the requirement of a residential address is a barrier for those street homeless who reject shelters. Moreover, spatial location is a barrier: it is why the street homeless do not live in shacks.

The critical issue is regular access to the central cities' livelihoods: failing this, homeless people cleared out of the cities simply continue to return. California's experience suggests it is possible to provide easy-access homeless support that helps the homeless to live in ways the cities can tolerate. 

Overall, it seems clear that the homelessness question is not limited to shelter, and is not a simple matter of poverty either. For the developmental state, the street homeless are the proverbial skeletons at the feast, the excluded poorest who enter unobserved and stand by gaunt and starved, terrifying to the invited guests but deprived of any capacity to join the party.

If South Africa has a street population unable to benefit from shelter or housing programmes, their situation will need to be managed while they remain on or near the streets. If so, total abolition of the homeless condition may not be a realistic option under any policy dispensation, and management then becomes the key concern.

Overall, it seems clear that the homelessness question is not limited to shelter, and is not a simple matter of poverty either.

This article is an extract from ‘Skeletons at the feast: a review of street homelessness in South Africa and other world regions', in Development Southern Africa. 27(1):5-20, by Cross, C, Seager, J, Erasmus, JC, Ward, C, and O'Donovan, M.