Dear Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis: Safe spaces ‘model’ is keeping people enslaved in homelessness

Carlos Mesquita’s open letter to Cape Town’s Executive Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis. File Picture: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency(ANA)

Carlos Mesquita’s open letter to Cape Town’s Executive Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis. File Picture: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Mar 13, 2024


Dear Mayor Hill-Lewis,

Every time you issue orders to “evict” people living on the streets, you write an opinion editorial to defend or motivate your actions. You tell us that it is done not only for the good of the city, the city’s housed community, but most importantly, for the good of those living on the streets.

You also explain the caring and sustainable alternatives being offered by the City’s staff and the post-eviction services that monitor what happens to these individuals subsequent to an eviction. You go further and try to convince the city’s residents that this “model” you are using to address homelessness is successful and suggest other cities should try it as a model that is working.

Besides offering my congratulations and sharing my excitement with you about your announcement over a year ago about the new 300-bed transitional safe space you envisaged opening in Green Point, I appealed to you to speak with those living on the streets in order to get their understanding of what transitional means to them.

I told you then that their understanding would align closely with the global understanding of that concept: the provision of a lockable space, where people could experience a certain level of privacy, exert a sense of control over it and be able to maintain certain relationships. Based on this understanding of a transitional space, none of your safe spaces can be considered transitional.

At one of your safe spaces, people still sleep on pallets outside in the elements, with corrugated sheets as shelter from the rain. And in all the others you have people sleeping in large dormitories and dictate that they spend 12 hours of the day outside of the safe space, where the City’s by-laws can easily criminalise them for loitering.

In some instances, they have to use the bucket system to wash and relieve themselves.

Once the prescribed time is up at your safe spaces, there are no other options available but for them to return to the streets and start the process all over again. The only sustainability you are achieving is keeping people enslaved in homelessness.

Your “model”, has in no way been successful. By your own admission, it managed to “re-integrated or re-unite” 112 individuals in the last financial year, where the City had a budget of R94 million for that period. You claim in the same statement to “having referred people for accommodation or rehabilitation services”. You and I both know, sir, referrals are not successes. Some remain just that, referrals.

Your “model” sees the very questionable and controversial service provider, Matdoc, receive close to R10m a year per safe space, of which a mere 11% goes towards social and developmental services.

The second insight you share with us is that the law and courts system demand that cities dedicate extensive resources to managing the complex web of legal processes required to legally evict people from public places.

They should in fact be more demanding and extensive to dissuade you from choosing this senseless route-evicting people already living on the streets. Which in effect means you are merely displacing already displaced people.

The third insight you share with us is how you are using the “credible census data of 6 630 people living on our streets”.

This is so farfetched that had it not been for the negative impacts your falsehoods have on people living on the streets, I would have howled with laughter.

Let me try and enlighten you: It has been widely reported and even admitted to by those conducting the census that their first attempt at counting those living on the streets was a complete failure. You are also not working with “the homeless”. You are working with individuals living on the streets with individual needs to come off those streets. They might all currently share the temporary status of being homeless but it does not define who they are and what their needs are.

There is also no way you or the City can open up enough safe spaces to accommodate everyone currently living on the streets (over 20 000) and so, I suggest as I did last year, you hand over responsibility for those living on the streets to ward councillors who – with churches, businesses, housed and unhoused residents in their wards – can come together and find and agree on open safespaces where people living on the streets can be accommodated and offered services. Where a symbiotic relationship between housed and unhoused can develop and where services can be exchanged.

These can become City-sanctioned homeless hubs where people are assisted while still on the streets. This allows you to then impose a ban on all these unmanaged, unserviced, unsightly, unhygienic and unsafe encampments.

Mayor Geordin Hill Lewis, I am appealing to you to please stop painting a picture that the model the City has chosen to address homelessness is working or successful. Stop telling yourself and others that evictions are working for the housed and unhoused.

You know as well as I know that nothing the City is currently doing can be termed successful or sustainable.

Everything about these interventions is temporary, even what seems like a win, like getting rid of those at the Three Anchor Bay Tennis Academy and the few that accepted your offer of place at a safe space, is temporary.

* 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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