Guest Column

To give or not to give: Why the City of Cape Town is wrong about the homeless

2017-10-16 13:22

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Glenn Bownes

Last week, the City of Cape Town called on residents to not give homeless people money or food, but to rather make donations directly to organisations working with the homeless.

Mayoral committee member for safety, security and social services JP Smith said: "We are constantly reminding residents about the harm in giving money directly to street people. While they may think they’re doing a good deed, in reality, it only discourages street people from accepting social services."

The City's argument is that "handouts" just perpetuate the problem of chronic homelessness. To be fair, this position is a relatively common one. And one often made by people and organisations who, not only mean well, but who are actively engaged in helping people who find themselves on the streets.

The argument goes that, if homeless people feel that it is "profitable" to live on the streets, they will continue to do so. Further, it is argued that, because many are on the streets because of alcohol and drugs, the money given to them will just be spent on getting drunk or high.

It is true that some people end up on the streets as a direct result of addiction, although it is often only one of many factors, including poverty, evictions and domestic abuse.

I would have thought that forcing poor people out of their homes in the inner city, and then pricing them out of "the market", does more to "perpetuate chronic homelessness" and "chronic privilege" than random acts of kindness. 

In fact, let's call it what it is. Unbridled capitalism tends to impoverish people all over the world. And throwing one's hands in the air and saying it's just "natural market forces" doesn't cut it. There is nothing "natural" about the pursuit of profit by the few at the expense of many.

But let's even (for the sake of argument) accept the assumption that homeless people are addicts and will just use your money to feed their habit. So what? Once you hand over money or a gift to somebody, you lose the right to tell them what to do with it. 

It is deeply patronising to say to someone: "I am giving you this money, it is yours, but I will decide for you how you spend it."

If that is your attitude, then rather give the person what you believe they need, or donate your money to an organisation which will use it in a way in which you approve.

Mark Johnson, a British rehabilitated offender and former drug user, who is now an author and founder of the charity User Voice, wrote this in the Guardian a few years ago:

"It's OK by me if a homeless person spends my money on drink or drugs. When I was homeless I found it very hard to beg, but people who did give me money were preventing a crime, because the money meant I didn't have to steal in order to eat or to feed my addiction. And, frankly, it's none of your business where an addict is on his journey. If your money funds the final hit, accept that the person would rather be dead. If your act of kindness makes him wake up the next morning and decide to change his life, that's nice but not your business either."

Don't get me wrong, addiction is a serious problem in Cape Town, and the country as a whole, and there are many people and organisations who are doing incredible work in an attempt to help them. 

There are also some fine organisations and shelters helping people who have (for whatever reasons) become homeless. They need and deserve our support. And Smith is correct to laud their work and encourage us all to give them financial support.

But, as Hannes van der Merwe from Cape Town non-profit organisation Straatwerk says, "The right solution to a homeless individual's problem is usually complex and unique."

Van der Merwe maintains that the City is taking an "overly simplistic approach to a very complex problem".

"There are people where giving would be detrimental, yes, but there are people that you just have no choice but to help there in that moment," Van der Merwe told News24.

Haven Night Shelter CEO Hassan Khan agrees with Van der Merwe.

"In the first instance, I think we are required to help. The Lord is very clear, you must give to those who are hungry," Khan told News24.

"If you are far away from a shelter, advise a person about a nearby shelter. Or buy a passport (coupon) at one of our shelters. And if you can't do that, take a moment and break bread with the person, sit down with him – make him feel loved."

Homelessness is an ever-growing problem that isn't going away anytime soon. We, who are privileged, should help out in various ways, including making donations of money and time to organisations like Straatwerk and the Haven Night Shelter.

But I am also going to continue making my own judgment calls as to when I choose to give my money to someone who asks for it. And once I have given it to them, it belongs to them, and they have the right to spend it as they see fit.

Here is a very useful list of shelters for homeless adults provided by the Western Cape.

- Glenn Bownes is News24's chief sub-editor.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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