So how many homeless people are there in Cape Town? With World Homeless Day marked around the world on Thursday 10 October, this conundrum was again under the spotlight.
An answer, provided by an enumeration study conducted in November 2018, has been drawn into question by service providers who work with the homeless.
According to the Western Cape government’s 2019 statistics, released to the press in June, there are about 4 862 homeless people in the greater Cape Town area, with more than 700 living in the central business district (CBD).
This constitutes a 16% decrease when compared to the findings of a study done four years earlier. The study released by the City’s then Mayco member for social development and early childhood development (SDECD) Suzette Little ’s directorate, “Street People Research 2014/15”, found there were 7 383 homeless people in Cape Town at that time.
Jon Hopkins, chief operations officer (COO) of U-turn, a registered Christian non-governmental organisation (NGO), says the reality experienced by U-turn or any of its NGO partners across the City is the exact opposite. U-Turn, focused on the rehabilitation of the homeless, keeps extensive records on numbers of people it sees yearly.
“These numbers have not decreased; the number of individuals accessing our services has increased by 35% since 2015,” Hopkins says.
Social worker Ian Veary of the Street Peoples Forum (SPF) – a sector body formed by organisations whose clients include people living on the streets of Cape Town – and The Hope Exchange, says they have had a similar experience.
“The demand for the range of services that are on offer at The Hope Exchange has shown an increase in the number of individuals accessing our services. This includes economic migrants from other provinces as well as people displaced locally due to gang violence, parolees from prison not able to return to communities of origin and young people looking for better opportunities in an economic hub of the metropole,” he says.
This anomaly has caused service providers to doubt the findings of the 2019 study. However, no further information has been released by the SDECD’s research and knowledge management to quell concerns.
Hopkins says the methodology has not yet been released or the findings formally published. “And it has verbally been said by the researchers that as the methodology is not the same, the two numbers cannot be compared, yet in all media released to date by the City, they have been,” he says.
He says the dangers of mistakenly comparing these findings are twofold – it can lead to service providers losing financial support and it breeds complacency in dealing with the huge homelessness problem faced across the City.
“The big question is, whilst the two numbers cannot be compared, what is the biggest reason for the decline? Is it because of a difference in methodology, because of an undercount or has homelessness indeed fallen,” asks Hopkins.
Mayco member for community services and health, councillor Zahid Badroodien, says the overall objective of the enumeration was to count the number of people living on the street and the number of people utilising the shelters.
“We employed the period prevalence count using an observational approach. The period prevalence count refers to a measure of a population over a period of seven days or more. The count was conducted between 13 and 30 November 2018,” says Badroodien.
He says teams went out in the early hours of the morning to physically count people living on the street.
“In terms of people living in the shelters, we obtained the numbers from shelters across the City for that specific period,” says Badroodien.
People’s Post did ask the department to provide a date when the findings would be published but no date was supplied.
Despite the delay in the publication, Hopkins does commend the City for its role in addressing homelessness.
To his knowledge, the City of Cape Town is the only major metropolitan area in South Africa that has conducted a homeless enumeration study.
The SDECD also entered into a dialogue with street people and the street people sector at a World Homeless Day event held at Bellville South Civic Centre, Bellville South, last Thursday.
Several service providers attended the event, including City health, the Matrix clinic for substance abuse rehabilitation support, Sassa and the department of home affairs.
The engagement aimed to determine the needs and provide an opportunity for closing the gaps in responding to people living on the street.
Badroodien was a speaker at the event. He says the City hopes to develop an improved interface model between it and organisations that provide services to street people.
“We know that there is no current silver bullet to solve this and we will look to working with partners who are able to support our positive social intervention programmes,” Badroodien says.
The dialogue will inform a larger engagement with the sector in November to strengthen the interface between the City and the street people sector.
The event will be attended by 240 street people and will include a pop-up clothing stall, dignity station and hair grooming.