Pandemic provides chance to deal with homelessness

A homeless man rests on the pavement in Pritchard street, Johannesburg. The writer says homelessness remains a humanitarian issue, and this neglected community deserves the same rights as any other in society.
A homeless man rests on the pavement in Pritchard street, Johannesburg. The writer says homelessness remains a humanitarian issue, and this neglected community deserves the same rights as any other in society.
Image: SIHLE MAKU/ Times

Municipalities across South Africa were, in the midst of the Covid-19 epidemic, forced to confront a long-ignored homeless population after President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered everyone off the street.

Government scrambled to set up temporary shelters but despite efforts to enforce the lockdown, many homeless remained outdoors - rummaging through bins and begging at traffic intersections.

Many of the homeless left the shelters because of substance abuse and the subsequent cravings.

We have largely underestimated the extent of homelessness in the province; it was initially thought that there would be around 15,000 homeless people who would need to be catered for during the lockdown.

It is now estimated that there are around 50,000 homeless people in Gauteng - 15,000 in Johannesburg and around 10,000 in Tshwane.

We are now at level 4 of the national lockdown, and serious consideration needs to be made as to what will happen to the large number of homeless people in the province that have been housed in different temporary shelters during this period.

Most of the homeless people were moved from the areas where they used to find shelter at night to the temporary shelters that are situated kilometres away from their usual locations. We are concerned that the homeless people will be forgotten and neglected as soon as the national lockdown is lifted and that there are also no long-term plans in place for this community.

Now is the right time to address homelessness in the province and the department of social development should use this opportunity to engage the homeless people to understand their challenges.

These interventions can also result in the rehabilitation of some of the homeless people, leading to them being reintegrated with their families, relatives and their communities.

Many countries in Africa are facing a serious challenge of rehabilitating homeless people.

In Nigeria an organisation called the Mental Health Innovation Network has partnered with the government, Methodist Church and the Amaudo Itumbauzo NGO to reduce destitution among people with mental illness through rehabilitation and reintegration with families.

This programme uses the concept of community support to develop a rehabilitation centre where people eat, work, play and worship together. Having a dedicated space for community support is an important component of this rehabilitation programme as the homeless people have been abandoned by their families and society.

The centre uses a holistic approach to rehabilitation including integrating medical, social, occupational and psychological services. The programme has a structured process for reintegrating homeless people with their families after recovery and they also receive vocational training prior to discharge and are supported to pursue their chosen vocation in their home setting.

It is high time that the Gauteng department of social development partners with organisations which cater for the homeless to implement such programmes. To rehabilitate the homeless and reintegrate them with their families will bring light to the lives of the homeless people.

The department must start by engaging its municipal counterparts to compile a proper database of the number of the homeless. Homelessness remains a humanitarian issue, and this neglected community deserves the same rights as any other in society.

*Bosch is DA Gauteng spokesperson for social development

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