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The Homeless – A menace or simply misunderstood?

A woman wrote to Terence Pillay to lament that the homeless are her biggest problem in life. So Terence pondered whether they are a menace or just misunderstood? 

Homeless
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Nobody wants to see beggars on every street corner or encounter them every time you pull up at a traffic light. But the reality of it is that we have massive unemployment and homelessness in this country and that’s why people are there at these traffic lights and outside shopping malls. So unless we can deal with the structural inequalities of our society, this will always be the case.

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The issue is, beggars and the homeless have become associated with crime – if the notice boards on these community groups are to be believed. But that is just a perception – it might well be true in some cases but it is still largely just a perception. And that’s the first thing we need to understand.

So this whole brouhaha began when there was an ATM robbery in a suburb and apparently one of the people who was involved was identified as one of the people who regularly asks for donations outside a supermarket in the area. So this hysterical community then made the link between the homeless, as a whole, and crime and everyone is now rabbiting on about this like it’s the gospel. 

So the crux of this story from the CPF’s point of view is that these homeless or displaced people are there because people give them money. If people stopped giving them money they wouldn’t be there, so you can’t say that everybody that lives in an affluent area is a mean Grinch because clearly these people are making money by standing on street corners in these areas. People also drive past and give them money. But there is a group of people saying, “Please stop doing this because it’s encouraging a criminal element.” 

These people are victims of a system that keeps them in abject poverty and without homes. And now these homeless people are being accused of crime. Then there are affluent people in these areas that are accusing other affluent people of supporting the homeless and bringing crime into the area. So what’s the story here?

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Effectively, you have two camps here. One – oh shame these people are poor, we need to help them. And two – these people are vermin; we need to get rid of them. These community groups’ social media that I have seen has even gone as far as dehumanising these people, calling them cockroaches and saying they need to be exterminated. Those are the two extremes. And no one has actually asked why we have this problem. No one has brought up the issue of unemployment, increasing urbanisation, and lack of social housing.

The fact is our economy is just coming out of decline and without an economy that’s growing; you can’t get jobs or create new jobs. The assumption is that the people who live on the streets are uneducated, but this is not true. Yet the reality in this country is: even if these people have matric or an undergraduate degree from a university, that’s no guarantee of getting a job.

We’re not even in a 21st Century economy yet; we’re still in an industrialised economy and we don’t have the skills to support that. We’re moving into a knowledge economy and we don’t have the skills to support that either.

We need to get South Africa working. If that means creating jobs or creating businesses then that’s what we need to do – preferably create businesses because businesses create jobs.

There will always be people who will see living on the street and begging for money as an easy way out, rather than doing some menial job. And then there are those who, because they’re on the street the whole day, will become the eyes and ears of criminals. And more and more criminals are using these homeless people’s street side presence to plot crimes against soft targets.

So we can’t through one radio show fix the systemic and structural issues that this country faces; we have a long way to go. But in response to homelessness, there are support systems in place – social grants and charities which are dedicated to helping to get people off the streets with structured programmes, support and skills training rather than just hand outs.

The response is to deal with the organised system. Social work, social development, and so on are in place but I don’t know how efficient they are – they’re government run so there are issues. But there are grants for people with children. If you’re over 18 however and unemployed, then unfortunately you don’t have much recourse, you just have to suck it up. And one of the ways to suck it up is to go to the streets and say, “I’m just going to beg!”

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But at what point do you become trapped in that cycle? If you look at Stats SA, for example, they publish a number of employment figures, and one of them relates to people who are unemployed and are no longer looking for work. They reach a point in their cycle of unemployment where they actually just stop looking and they become so disillusioned that work is no longer on their radar. The fact is: there are people who are currently living on the streets who have some kind of employment history and a skill.

The city should really be taking a hard line on people living on the street. We need to get together as a city and say, “If we want this to be the most liveable city in the world by 2030, which is our target, it’s not going to happen if we leave people on the street." We need to shift that somehow. And if the police have identified it as a cycle where they remove people and they come back, then they’re obviously not dealing with the root cause. We’re not fixing the problem. What we’re simply doing is just moving people around like pawns on a chess board. At what point do we admit that this is not working. Are we just going to keep wasting resources into moving people from where they are an eyesore or an irritation to a shelter which is not a viable long-term solution?

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If you were to do an organogram of homeless people, you have the traffic light hawker right at the top. From this person, you can get yourself branded sunglasses, an imported plastic kite, a swatter to keep flies off your Sunday roast, cellphone chargers and covers, and an array of amazing products, which include inflatable toys and all kinds of things. Depending on the weather, you can also get a hat, an umbrella, or a li-lo for your pool. So in many respects they are at the top of the food chain.

Then you get the traffic light mime or comedian, so there’s some kind of exchange there – for an impersonation of a statue you give me money or for a witty comment on a cardboard box or a joke that makes you laugh, you pay me too.

Next you get the Mr Bin; not a great example, but still providing a service – put your rubbish in my bag and pay me for it. I’ll dump it on the side of the road, but I still want the money.

Then you get the guy with some kind of recognisable physical disability and you contribute towards that person’s food or shelter. And lastly you get the person who’s standing there looking perfectly fine looking for money.

For me, the people that are selling something should be supported to start a business – perhaps start a consortium that work at flea-markets and markets that sell their products. Clearly they have money to buy stock so they have the makings of a small business.

The guys who are doing the mime and comedy could be supported to develop their craft and put on shows at the amphitheatre, which is currently not being used for anything.

The ones who are picking up trash should continue to do this and get paid by the city. Of course, they shouldn’t be dumping it on the side of the road. But perhaps this could become a wing of DSW or something since this is the city’s responsibility anyway.

And the others need to be taken to a shelter or a place of safety. This is a social development responsibility. The solution at the end of the day is not to brand these people as criminals but to find a way to get them off the street and make sure that they have a sustainable livelihood.

You can email Terence Pillay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @terencepillay1 and engage with him there.

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