by CCID 2 Jul 2019

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Debunking myths about the homeless

We see streetpeople every day and often make hasty assumptions and judgments about them and their circumstances. But they are not a homogeneous group and we need to “unlearn” the myths that surround them.

Homelessness is complex. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and no stereotypical homeless person. According to a 2015 study by the City of Cape Town’s social development and early childhood development directorate, homeless people can be categorised into: streetpeople, chronic street persons, day strollers, gangsters and ex-convicts, job seekers, non-South African foreign nationals, and streetborn. The study also found that that people have many different reasons for living on the street. These included freedom, betrayal by loved ones, substance use, spousal problems, financial loss, finding support and a sense of belonging on the street, and being on parole.

To help debunk some of the myths, we spoke to some individuals who work closely with the community of streetpeople in the Central City and surrounding areas. Here’s what they had to say …

Myth 1: Homeless people have chosen to be homeless
“In my experience, it is mostly an unfortunate set of circumstances that has led to a person having to live on the street; they often face barriers that prevent them from leaving the streets. In the face of these obstacles, they have no choice but to try and make the best of their situation. A number our clients do want to change their lives but need support to do so,” says Ian Veary, social work manager of The Hope Exchange (formerly The Carpenter’s Shop).

Myth 2: There’s no hope for the homeless
“The greatest myth to dispel is that homeless equals hopeless,” says Rowen Ravera, of U-Turn Homeless Ministries. “We are trying to re-educate people about long-term solutions to homelessness. Over 88% of the people who graduate from our programme remain sober and employed six months after graduation,” he says. “When the homeless are presented with a meaningful rehabilitation programme that includes work opportunities and skills development, they take the opportunity.”

CCID Fieldworker Shanien Rich interacting with clients

Myth 3: Homeless people choose to live on the street
Director and head of communications at the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies Liza-Jane Saban believes there is a conscious or unconscious bias towards streetpeople due to certain misconceptions, one of which is that they choose to live on the streets. “Nobody chooses to live in squalor and nearly freeze to death … the vast majority of streetpeople have no other option. Some have been rejected by their families or have escaped an abusive situation … shelters are not an option for many of them as there is not nearly enough bed space, and some shelters they don’t cater for families or transgender people.”

Myth 4: Giving to street people encourages them to stay on the street
According to Hannes van der Merwe, CEO of Straatwerk Ophelp Projekte, “a very bad misconception” is that only giving to organisations that assist the homeless is the way people can help. “Ignoring an immediate need is about the worst thing you can do as it is not only emotionally damaging but leaves them in even more desperate circumstances as time ticks on. Streetpeople often need help immediately help as much as wise assistance over time.”

CCID Fieldworker Mark Williams interacting with a client

Myth 5: Homeless people aren’t motivated to work
This is simply not true, says Jesse Laitinen, manager of strategic partnerships at the CCID’s partner NGO Khulisa Social Solutions. Through her work she says she’s “completely underestimated the motivation most streetpeople have to work and be accountable”. “Work opportunities allow streetpeople to shed the harmful behaviours associated with being on the street and become respected members of the community again. I’ve yet to meet a drug user living on the streets who wants to use. They just can’t quit without help.”

Myth 6: Living on the street is their choice
“Not everyone deals with life challenges in the same way, hence we cannot judge all homeless people based on one individual experience,” believes John Philmon, director for Youth Solutions Africa, another CCID partner NGO. ”There are people who know that they need help but are not yet ready to accept it and sometimes what we as shelters offer is not what they need or are interested in.”

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Cape Town Central City Improvement District.

Note: This article was first published in the 2019 winter issue of City Views.

IMAGES: Ed Suter, Sam Fourie