A stream of homeless people wends its way to a fenced-off stretch of tarmac under a bridge in Cape Town’s Foreshore district around sunset to bed down on rows of wooden pallets beneath sheet-metal shelters.
This is the Safe Space, a pilot facility that provides a secure place to sleep for about 230 people, part of a small but growing army of destitute living rough in a city that attracts millions of tourists a year to its sandy beaches, spectacular views and majestic Table Mountain.
Their numbers have increased since the last count in 2015 found 7,383 people living rough on Cape Town’s streets as an economic slump fuels already sky-high unemployment.
“More people are ending up on the street; South Africa lacks an effective safety net for people who come on hard times suddenly,” said JP Smith, the city’s mayoral committee member for safety, security and social services.
“Part of the reason why we have increased homelessness is because the wheels have fallen off our economy.’’
Governed by the main opposition Democratic Alliance, Cape Town has some of Africa’s most expensive real estate and ranks as South Africa’s best-run major city.
The rising number of people taking shelter under plastic sheeting and cardboard in the city center and suburbs has angered some wealthier residents who say the authorities are failing to deal with the problem – outrage that’s been vented at public meetings and on radio talk shows.
Besides a lack of jobs, homelessness is being driven by a shortage of affordable housing, breakdowns in family relationships and a lack of services and facilities for those struggling with mental illness and substance abuse — problems confronting expanding cities the world over.
For Ashley Pillay, 40, who’s been on the streets for three years battling a heroin addiction that cost him his job as a ship’s cook, the Safe Space is the first step to getting his life back on track.
“It’s cold and I have to get food every day,” he said as he unpacked a dinner of potato crisps and biscuits.
“But it is safe, better than where I was before.”
Situated near a string of car dealerships, the Safe Space offers free, temporary accommodation to those who can’t be housed in conventional shelters, or refuse to go. Municipal police officers guard the occupants, who are given bedding and lockers, have access to portable toilets and showers, and are visited by health workers, drug counselors and social workers.
So far, it seems to be working. Less than a fifth of the 268 people that sought refuge there in its first three months of operation returned to the streets. Others have found full- or part-time jobs, enrolled in development programs or secured alternative accommodation. Several similar shelters are planned for other areas in the city.
But the Cape Town authorities are struggling to come to grips with the breadth of the problem. They’ve found it ineffective to fine or arrest people, and their offers of help are often rebuffed, Smith said.
“There is no person that has not been given an offer to come off the street,” he said by phone.
“They want structures where they can move or change the orientation of their bed and who they sleep next to. They want as an informal arrangement as possible. You can’t force them to go where they don’t want to go.”
Hassan Khan, chief executive officer of The Haven Night Shelter which operates 15 shelters, nine of them in Cape Town, criticizes the city’s tolerance of people occupying public spaces and says more needs to be done to secure them alternate accommodation.
‘Like a Bandit’
“I think it is a law enforcement issue, rather than a social development issue,” he said in an interview at the non-profit’s head office in the Greenpoint suburb.
“The longer you allow people not to observe normal rules and standards of the community, the less likely it is that they will be able to rejoin their families.”
Caroline Abrahams, 49, is one of those who isn’t interested in Safe Space. She’s been homeless for more than 30 years and sleeps with her dog, Rusty, under a tarpaulin outside St. Mary’s Cathedral opposite the parliamentary precinct.
“How can I sleep on a pallet? I want a proper place,” she said in an interview on the sidewalk, a short stroll from the immaculate lawns outside President Cyril Ramaphosa’s parliamentary office. “You are like a bandit. They search you for drugs. I’m happy on the streets. This is my home. I can go wherever I want to, I can sleep whenever I want to.”
Smith said that while the city doesn’t plan to incarcerate people for living on the streets, it’s determined to ensure they comply with the law.
“I think in the next year, we will move toward a more balanced social development and law enforcement approach,’’ he said.
“It is about having humane, responsible approach that does not criminalize poverty.”