NATHANIEL LEE | Homelessness denies kids access to ideal education

These unfortunate people are unable to enjoy a series of basic human rights because of their nomadic lives

Homeless people, like this man on Cambridge Street in East London's CBD, have to contend with conditions which derail their dreams and access to social securities.
Homeless people, like this man on Cambridge Street in East London's CBD, have to contend with conditions which derail their dreams and access to social securities.
Image: Alan Eason

Shelter is a basic human need alongside food, water and sleep, without which human beings cannot survive – as identified by psychologist Abraham Maslow.

Should these needs not be satisfied, the possibility of human beings attaining secondary needs such as security, self-esteem and self-actualisation is severely curtailed.

It is for this reason that homelessness should be viewed as a profound assault on dignity, social inclusion and the right to life, all rights guaranteed under the South African constitution. Homelessness is also a violation of the right to housing, health, water and sanitation, security and freedom from cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment.

Homelessness refers to the lack of stable, safe, and functional housing. This condition affects children adversely as it increases the likelihood of dropping out of school. Children facing homelessness lack the stability and the necessary support to reach their academic goals. The constant disruptions in their lives do not augur well for their emotional and social development. They have to contend with chronic absenteeism, which derails their progress and ultimately results in them dropping out of school.

Without the exposure to consistent education, these children are tragically condemned to a cycle of poverty and homelessness as adults. For these children, acquiring an education becomes a secondary need, even a luxury as they have to prioritise on more immediate needs such as food and shelter.

Some of these children end up on the wrong side of the law as they try to eke out a living through unlawful means with stints in prison becoming a reality, all because of the unfortunate loss of their childhood. This is sad as no one should have to deal with homelessness and no child should have to live under conditions that make it impossible for them to attend school. This especially because education may help to redress their miserable circumstances by increasing their chances of rising out of poverty.

The causes of homelessness include, in the main, rising unemployment, the lack of affordable housing, social disintegration, and social and economic policies. Other reasons include substance abuse, housing costs, domestic violence, poverty, disabilities and mental health.

The current estimates put the number of homeless people in the country at 200,000. There are misconceptions about homeless people, which include the notion that it is by choice, that the homeless are almost invariably mentally challenged or are all drug addicts. These people are shunned by society and looked upon as the wretched of the earth and have to live on the peripheries of society.

In many instances, they have to live with chronic ailments, are vulnerable to victimisation, assault, rape and even murder. As an intervention, the education department should promulgate policies that would create a way that homeless children can be accommodated within school settings to provide them with an opportunity to benefit from education and hopefully reverse their unpalatable conditions.

Other possible solutions can include a national census of homeless people to get to grips with the magnitude of the problem. As management guru Peter Drucker asserts: “What you cannot measure, you cannot manage.”

The home affairs department should also get its act together and issue important documentation to people who might have suffered the misfortune of losing them owing to their nomadic episodes. The housing department should also expedite disputes around housing rights and inheritance. The strengthening of the rural economy should take centre stage through the re-industrialisation process.

This might unfortunately be a pipe-dream under the current ANC government. Such an industrialisation process would help to minimise the influx of people to the industrial hubs of Johannesburg and Durban and ease the demand for housing at these two cities.

For their part, ordinary citizens can show empathy and understanding to homeless people by educating others about this scourge in an effort to reduce the stigma attached to it. They can also show respect and courtesy to them in addition to donating basic needs such as food, clothing or time. Donations can also be made out to NGOs that are involved in such matters. Assistance may also be by way of sharing skills with them and offering voluntary service to cook, clean or even mentor at centres that house homeless people.

No effort should be spared to ensure that access to schooling is broadened for homeless children as education can help pluck them out of their wretched condition and satisfy their need for decent shelter. That should be doable.

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