Re-thinking the homeless narrative in Cape Town

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In November of 2016 Democratic Alliance Councillor Shayne Ramsay of Sea Point, an affluent suburb of Cape Town, posted an announcement on Facebook of her plans to deal with homelessness (Ramsay deleted the post shortly after posting it and issued an apology but it is republished at change.org. There is also a screen grab available via Eusebius McKaiser’s twitter page).

Included in this generally intolerant plan was an appeal to the Sea Point community to join her in a “March Against Grime.” Ramsay invited community members, City Improvement District officers and the South African Police Service to walk along the public promenade kindly asking anyone planning on sleeping overnight, to move along. She requested that everyone joining the march wear white as a symbol of “cleanliness.”

Ramsay’s post is striking because of the way it reproduces a popular, uncritical narrative of what homelessness means. It is a narrative that is shared by neighbourhood watch groups in affluent Cape Town suburbs as well as reportedly by other city officials.

Within this narrative, people living on the streets are cast as criminals who are idle, untrustworthy, unruly, dirty and dangerous. They are positioned as people who have no place in affluent areas of the inner-city. Living on the street is associated with deficiency. People living on the street are assumed not to understand codes of appropriate behaviour, cleanliness, how to participate in the city’s economy and are generally regarded by the more affluent members of the community—including officials like Ramsay—as a polluting factor in public urban spaces. It is this perception that motivates people like Ramsay to suggest that urban public spaces are in need of cleansing.

This narrative runs against the stories that people living on the street tell about themselves. Some of the most recent research conducted with young people living on the street in Durban by Emily Margaretten shows how young people living on the street are concerned with creating a sense of order and stability in their lives. These young people are always busy trying to reproduce structures of domesticity and propriety in some of the most marginalised spaces of the urban environment. Their lived experience of the urban environment, as represented by Margaretten, is structured around ideas of care for each other, a sense of spiritual order and constant enterprising activity.

Similarly, research conducted with children living on the streets in Durban shows how one of the primary considerations of many of the children is their cleanliness and a sense of behaving properly in public space. One group of young boys living on the street imposed a strict set of rules on each other, which included keeping the area where they slept clean, bathing every day and not smoking, sniffing glue or drinking. All of this was in an attempt to stay in a place that they liked because it was close to washing facilities and was beautiful. Far from being the antisocial agents and ‘matter out of place’ that the general public and city officials often represent them as, people living on the street try very hard to reproduce ‘domestic cultural forms,’ according to the research.

The way the general public has learned to understand street people is in terms of their location on the street and the survival tactics that many of them are forced to employ because of their situation. It is true, of course, that some of these strategies are harmful and result in alcoholism, drug addiction, and crime. But often the way in which homelessness is legislated against creates these ‘problems’ of homelessness by criminalising everyday domestic tasks and forcing people living on the streets away from central urban areas where it is easier for them to make a more legitimate living.

By making even the most mundane of domestic activities illegal in public space (such as drying your washing over a fence) and forcing homeless people away from prime urban spaces where their needs are more easily met, cleansing efforts like the one proposed by Ramsay not only make homeless people’s lives more difficult but also push them towards more dangerous parts of the city and more illegitimate survival strategies (as suggested by Van Blerk’s research, published in 2007, with people living on the street in Kampala, Uganda).

Street people’s location on the street and the survival strategies they employ are not the core of their identity. The reality of homelessness is much more complicated than the deficiency narrative reproduced so often by wealthy city residents and city officials. Intolerant homelessness policies force people living on the street to rely more heavily on the survival strategies that the domiciled find so offensive.

James Clacherty is an editorial intern with urbanafrica.net.

Photograph. Councillor Ramsay’s proposed ‘March Against Grime’ was set to take place along Sea Point promenade, Cape Town. Brendon Bosworth.

 

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