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Building partnerships to help the homeless

There is no easy fix to help the homeless on the streets of our CBDs. As we approach International Homeless Day on 10 October, we speak to Pat Eddy, Social Development Manager at the Cape Town Central City Improvement District in regard to the complexities.

Homelessness is a social phenomenon that has been with us, in our CBDs and other developed areas, for centuries and, sadly, the perception exists that if you make the life of street people as tough as possible, then they will somehow just disappear. That they will just “go back home”. Problem solved.

Explains Pat Eddy, Social Development Manager of the Cape Town Central City Improvement District (CCID): “There are various groups living on the streets of our city, which highlights why there cannot be a single approach to dealing with the issues.”

There are also a number on our streets, says Pat, that we need to think of as the “working homeless” – people who often simply can either not afford the combination of high costs of accommodation and transport that would take them back to their place of origin, or genuinely cannot return home where life may be intolerable, and thus the streets become their only foreseeable option as a place where they are able to eke out a meagre income.

Irrespective of the reasons why people are on the streets, says Pat: “It’s one thing to survive the elements and find a way to bring in enough money from donations and parttime earnings in order to sustain yourself, but social welfare support is essential for the homeless: it helps them to rebuild their dignity, hope and self esteem and, over time, become empowered through training and job creation so that they can start to earn a sustainable income and hopefully rebuild their lives.”

However, worldwide the homeless issue is almost always at the very bottom of the public (or private) pile when it comes to allocating budgets to NGOs, and thus these facilities seldom have sufficient funding or resources to adequately improve the lives of those living on the streets.

“The key,” says Pat, “lies in finding partnerships across all stakeholders, from the public sector to the private and including the NGOs.

“What fills me with hope are people such as Bevan Dufty (an American Democratic politician) who is absolutely passionate about improving the lives of homeless people in San Francisco. His great success has been in bringing all the NGOs on board so that they have a common strategy,” It’s also essential that every city has a champion for their street people, someone who has credibility within government as well as with big business to bring people together and inspire change.”

Eddy’s own vision is for the creation of what she calls a “service centre”, a one-stop shop for those in need.

“We need a central facility where the homeless can go regularly for food as well as a wider range of basic services and where also, over time, the staff can gain their trust. Basic services would be those provided by a multi-disciplinary team which could include, for example, a health practitioner providing basic medical care including the dispensing of medication to ensure compliance and the monitoring of TB, HIV/AIDS and mental illness. It would also include an occupational therapist providing programmes to maintain daily living and work skills, and social workers providing individual counselling, group work and family reintegration services.

“You have to understand that the homeless person needs to get to a position where they can trust someone before they will ask for help, that’s why it’s so important for fieldworkers, social workers and other professionals in the field to have regular contact with the homeless. Such a centre would require additional funding, but it could potentially make a major impact in gradually reducing the number of homeless people in our cities.”

In the meanwhile, the CCID’s own Give Responsibly campaign enables members of the public to donate via an SMS campaign or by direct deposit into the Give Responsibly account, for distribution equally among the six NGOs involved with street people in the Cape Town CBD.

The CCID also makes contributions towards these NGOs, sourcing sponsorships from corporates and assisting directly wherever it can: along with the services rendered daily by the CCID’s Social Development team (which also includes two fulltime registered auxiliary social workers and one experienced fieldworker), twice a year the CCID provides 2 000 care bags containing hygiene products and seasonally applicable items for Cape Town’s homeless. These are donated to street people particularly to enable them to properly utilise the ablution facilities and showers at various NGOs daily, including those at The Carpenter’s Shop, Straatwerk Bath House and The Haven. The CCID also annually donates, via its partner NGOs in the CBD, over 500 pairs of sturdy men’s and ladies shoes.

“Such access to basic hygiene services is integral to enable them to shower, shave and wash their hair, all of which helps them to maintain a sense of dignity so they can face up to the challenges of another day on the street,” says Pat.

Strategies to deal with homelessness, believes Eddy, must begin with those that provide preventative action, including those that focus on the community of origin before the person even reaches the street: “If you talk to people on the streets, you’ll soon realise that they do have a lot of initiative within themselves and most of them will do whatever work they can find. People end up on the streets as a result of a variety of social issues and there are a lot of genuinely sad cases where people have had horrific lives and have endured severe brutality, and as a result they end up with a lot of issues to deal with.”

The first step for assisting individuals living on the streets should be to identify any health-related needs and to deal with them urgently, from illness and injury to issues of substance abuse or mental challenges. “This, however,” says Eddy, “is not always possible as there are few appropriate health facilities and insufficient support for street people who require follow up and medication.

The next step would be to build dignity and empower street people so that they can start to earn a living. “This could even be by formalising any casual jobs that they are already doing so that they can earn a regular income,” says Eddy.

“It’s sometimes difficult for a person to maintain any kind of a job or even family contact while they are living on the streets. There are some wonderful NGOs that offer job creation opportunities, but our message of Give Responsibly that we are spreading throughout the Cape Town Central City is aimed at making everyone aware of the need to donate to these NGOs directly rather than to people on the street, so that these facilities can create the necessary opportunities.

“The more people start to support the NGOs that help the homeless, the more we can lead towards an improvement in facilities to assist the homeless. It’s not about diverting the existing efforts people are making; it’s about raising awareness of the problem so that people who currently don’t give because of their perceptions about street people can realise the value of supporting in a positive way.

However, notes Pat, there are times when someone is in real need and may need help right away. “They might literally not have the strength to get to a shelter, so a bit of food money can make all the difference to them that day. But we really do want people to engage with the concept of Give Responsibly so that we can work both towards ensuring that the right facilities are available, and towards ensuring that we do all we can to build the dignity of the homeless person.”

* Read about the CCID’s open-source Give Responsibly at www.giveresponsibly.co.za