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Better and clearer policies are needed to end chronic homelessness

Carlos Mesquita writes that people experiencing homelessness have a unique vantage point of the systems that they avoid or interact with, and that these viewpoints can identify procedures that need to change. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Carlos Mesquita writes that people experiencing homelessness have a unique vantage point of the systems that they avoid or interact with, and that these viewpoints can identify procedures that need to change. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Jan 12, 2022

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Covid-19 has amplified the gaps in the systems that serve people experiencing homelessness. It has also resulted in an increased number of homeless people.

Our House opened in July 2020 with 33 previously homeless people. In 18 months I have seen 138 people do the programme and get re-homed.

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I have completed a report based on this experience.

Each story describes their experiences interacting with or avoiding elements of the homeless-serving system. These stories will all be published.

To add depth to the analysis, I also spoke to other service providers, people still staying on the streets and a number of social workers.

By not paying attention to the dire housing shortage faced by the lowest-income group, we take away the ability of families to proactively address possible homelessness.

By ignoring how the housing crisis impacts the lowest-income group, we have to some degree institutionalised homelessness.

I suggest an urgent in-depth look into rental programmes and financial support for organisations offering supportive and transitional accommodation.

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The stories of people living on the streets of Cape Town emphasise this urgency.

Service fragmentation often acts as a barrier to exiting homelessness and for this reason I suggest we prioritise the integration of the homeless serving system.

For example, agencies have widely varying approaches to evictions, and as a result many individuals jump between shelters, absolute homelessness and transitional programmes.

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My report makes several recommendations for the provincial government to work collaboratively with local stakeholders to integrate trauma-informed practices, housing first practices and indigenous cultural safety throughout the homeless serving system.

The practices of non-profit shelter operators as well the City’s safe space operators are not consistently aligned with provincial performance standards, and guidelines.

I found evidence that significant numbers of people are living in shelters long-term, while the provincial policy suggests clients should be housed within 60 or 100 days (if experiencing chronic homelessness).

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Nowhere does the policy say that anyone must be evicted and be back on the streets, which is really happening.

The provincial government should clearly define the intended period for emergency and transitional programmes in its policy, and stress that this should never lead to eviction and being back on the streets.

The province will have to decide on a new policy that clearly defines standards, monitoring and evaluation.

There is considerable confusion and frustration among people experiencing homelessness regarding their rights and responsibilities in shelters and transitional supportive housing.

People experiencing homelessness have a unique vantage point of the systems that they avoid or interact with. These viewpoints can identify procedures that need to change.

Make it easier for people to take an active role in improving their circumstance and well-being.

Individuals and families want to know that there is something positive on the other side of homelessness, they want help for untreated trauma, and want to be inspired by stories of those who have recovered from homelessness.

Those who participated in this study, overwhelmingly requested that the system make it easier for them to take an active role in improving their circumstance and well-being.

The current system is not designed to support this.

By not making room for the experiences, analysis, and desires of those struggling to exit from homelessness, we lengthen experiences of homelessness and facilitate returns to homelessness.

The Covid-19 pandemic spurred significant new investments and facilitated a new level of co-operation, but programmes are not integrated and are not oriented towards ending homelessness.

This report is a call to action for the provincial government to lead a fullscale transformation of the homeless serving system in the Western Cape.

* Carlos Mesquita and a handful of others formed HAC (the Homeless Action Committee) that lobbies for the rights of the homeless. He also manages Our House in Oranjezicht, which is powered by the Community Chest. He can be reached at [email protected]

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus

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