The effects of homelessness on our city

Homelessness in Cape Town

The Table Mountain fires that have just begun to be contained have sparked debate in Cape Town once again around homelessness. On Sunday 18 April, the day that the fires began, reports that Table Mountain National Park “surmised that the origin of the fire is from a vacated vagrant fire” were broadcast in the news. However, forensic expert investigating the fires David Klatzow disagrees, saying he is “not convinced” a vagrant is behind the Table Mountain blaze. He is asking for further investigations into both SANPark’s and UCT’s roles in possible negligence that led to the fires getting out of control in the height of fire season when measures should be taken to prevent the spread of fires that do occur.

It is not hard to believe that there is a bigger picture to consider and that placing the blame on a “vagrant” as an easy scapegoat is too simple an answer.

There are about 100 homeless people living on the slopes of Table Mountain, according to Lorenzo Davids, a social development activist and former CEO of the Community Chest Western Cape. But “the fact that there are vagrants in the mountain,” says Klatzow, “is a measure of the fact that society as a whole has failed these people.”

We took this debate as an opportunity to investigate the condition of homelessness and its impact on the City of Cape Town, as there are many myths and misconceptions. Some people believe that homelessness is a choice; there is the idea that people experiencing homelessness can simply pick themselves up “by the bootstraps” if they wanted to, and that they are unhoused simply because they are lazy. However, homelessness is not a choice and there are various reasons why people experience homelessness. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Structural factors

Structural factors are economic and societal issues that affect opportunities and social environments for individuals. These include: the lack of adequate income, access to affordable housing and health supports and/or the experience of discrimination. Shifts in the economy both nationally and locally can create challenges for people to earn an adequate income, pay for food and for housing.


Homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked. People who are impoverished are frequently unable to pay for necessities such as housing, food, childcare, healthcare, and education. 


A critical shortage of housing that is affordable, safe and stable directly contributes to homelessness. Arguably, the most impactful factor is the lack of affordable housing nationwide; however, discrimination and systemic injustices can impede access to employment, housing, justice and helpful services. Racial and sexual minorities are at greater risk of such discrimination.

System failures

Systems failures occur when other systems of care and support fail, requiring vulnerable people to turn to the homelessness sector, when other mainstream services could have prevented this need. Examples of system failures include difficult transitions from child welfare, inadequate discharge planning for people leaving hospitals, correctional and mental health and addiction facilities, and a lack of support for immigrants and refugees.

Personal circumstances and relational problems

Individual and relational factors apply to the personal circumstances of a person experiencing homelessness, and may include: traumatic events (e.g. house fire or job loss), personal crisis (e.g. family break-up or domestic violence), mental health and addictions challenges (including brain injury and fetal alcohol syndrome), which can be both a cause and consequence of homelessness and physical health problems or disabilities. Relational problems can include family violence and abuse, addictions, and mental health problems of other family members and extreme poverty.

Domestic violence

There is an undeniable connection between domestic violence and homelessness. Family violence can force individuals and families to leave home suddenly, without proper support in place. This is particularly an issue for youth and women, especially those with children. Women who experience violence and/or live in poverty are often forced to choose between abusive relationships and homelessness. Young people who are victims of sexual, physical or psychological abuse often end up experiencing homelessness. Also, seniors experiencing abuse and neglect are increasingly at risk of homelessness.

Homelessness in Cape Town

Social Development MEC Sharna Fernandez paid a visit to the OWL Haven Shelter on Tuesday 23 March 2021, where she announced that more beds would be funded in an attempt to get homeless people off the street. Fernandez said the department is fully aware of the important role shelters play in ensuring that the homeless are looked after. 

Speaking to News 24, OWL Haven shelter manager and social worker Phoccia Titus had the following to say: “In winter, there is a high demand for beds and shelter… and many homeless people are looking for a place to sleep and food to eat.”

According to the Cost of Homelessness Summary Report 2020 in partnership with U-turn, Khulisa Streetscapes and MES, conducted by Jonathan Hopkins, James Reaper and Sam Vos, there were 6 prominent findings:

  1. On average, a number of homeless people in Cape Town have spent 8.5 years living on the street.
  2. There is a high level of chronic homelessness (above 50%). “Chronic homelessness” describes people who have experienced homelessness consistently for at least a year – or repeatedly over several years – while struggling with a disabling condition such as a serious mental illness, substance use disorder, or physical disability.
  3. Over 14,000 people are homeless in Cape Town.
  4. In 2019 homelessness cost the City of Cape Town over R744 million. Per person, this equates to R51,811 per year (R4,318 per month or R142 per day).
  5. Cape Town spends R335.3 million on punitive / reactive responses to homelessness.
  6. About 85% of homeless people are in desperate need of healthcare.

But what effect does homelessness have on the City?

  • Developmental costs: These are costs of providing direct services to the homeless such as shelter, food, ablutions, social support, skills development and economic empowerment. These services are provided by non-profit shelters and service providers; the City of Cape Town Social Development and Early Childhood Development Department; the Western Cape Department for Social Development; and Community Improvement District social development teams.
  • Reactive and Punitive costs: These are costs for reacting to homelessness, either through an urban management requirement (e.g. cleaning), a security-based response, or increased demand on the criminal justice system. These costs include the City of Cape Town Displaced People’s Unit, Community Improvement District security and urban management spending, and Criminal Justice costs.  
  • Humanitarian costs: These are the cash handouts given to homeless people every day from Cape Town residents who support them either out of concern or compassion. 

In response to these findings, U-Turn, Khulisa Streetscapes and MES united to form a Coalition to End Homelessness. While each of the founding organisations is well-established with a reliable track record in developmental and rehabilitation solutions that help reduce homelessness, the Coalition is calling for more effective investment into the sector by society at large. 

Homelessness is a large and complicated social issue that has deep roots in our society.  In fact, homelessness has been around for such a long time that many see it as ‘just the way it is’ – but it doesn’t have to be. Increased research and awareness has shown homelessness in a different light as it has been described as a public health emergency deserving of a crisis response.  

So how can WE as a community make positive changes in how we assist and support individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness first hand? 

  1. Make a point of saying ‘Hi’, smiling or having a conversation with someone who is experiencing homelessness. Most times people who are experiencing homelessness are ignored; treated as a disgrace and as if they don’t belong in our community.  Acknowledging and forming some kind of connection, however small it may be, can help, as it begins to change the attitude that people who experience homelessness aren’t somehow innately different or undeserving to an attitude that shows that they matter – reducing the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality.
  2. Prepare care packages including necessity items to be given out to people experiencing homelessness as this will help them to cope with daily survival while they figure out their next living situation.
  3. Volunteer your time at soup kitchens, food banks or local shelters.
  4. Consider donating funds to charities that support programmes to end homelessness.
  5. Become an advocate and help to lessen the stigma around homelessness. Educate yourself, your family and your community about the issue of homelessness and the factors that can lead to homelessness. Contrary to many assumptions, homelessness does not only happen to ‘bad’ or ‘dirty’ people who use drugs and make trouble. 

Remember: People experiencing homelessness want to get off the street and the sobering fact is that not one of us is immune to this risk – it could happen to anyone, so be kind ALWAYS.

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