Tackling homelessness

By Oliver Shigwedha

I have over the past week interacted with many homeless people and I was somewhat overwhelmed by the multi-layered challenges they face that have not been foreseen ahead of the Covid-19 lockdown.

The United Nations defines as the homeless as persons without any shelter that would qualify as personal living quarters due to a lack of income or lack of steady income. They carry their few possessions with them, sleeping in the streets, in doorways, on the pier, or in other spaces, on a more or less random basis.

And this problem goes as far back to biblical times.

At the coast we couldn’t help but notice MTC’s sincere and urgent response to the needs of homeless people in Windhoek, but not the regions. This led Swakopmund Community Engagement Group and others to request that the constituency councilor intervene by providing temporary shelter to the homeless. What a sequence of events, I should say.

From the first day of engagement until the end of the week, the following was observed from this group of homeless people that were sheltered at the Youth Hostel for the past week. Some are broken men, some come from dysfunctional families, and the streets have hardened them.  In awe, I observed the withdrawal symptoms from addiction; lifestyle disorientation; lack of guardianship, and their over-dependency on begging.

Randomly encountering and managing their micro-aggressions, I have witnessed and engaged with the group of individuals on a daily basis.

After witnessing this, I should say that we have failed as a society address this and many ills with our resources. But the purpose of this article is not just to highlight issues and provide solutions but to unpack the costs associated with not addressing this problem and how unsustainable it has become.

Just to note, street kids are not dealt with under this discussion of homelessness.

After interacting with local stakeholders and engaging experts specializing in these fields, I realised we need long-term interventions to get this right and a policy to guide the process. We cannot continue to ignore the homeless. We need to create a safety net for the most vulnerable from a local authority perspective. And this group is highly vulnerable.

As they are landless nomads, begging is a form of independence, a livelihood in itself.

We should make an attempt to do this because it’s a reflection of us a society. We need to try better to help all. Strategic interventions require all stakeholders’ input, including the general public, who have shown great compassion by providing money and food to this group of homeless young men.

Wider consultation to include the private sector in the discussion is needed, and this should not be left to the State alone to resolve. We have given the government a mandate for the last 30 years, and this is where we find ourselves – the most vulnerable people need a new approach to solving their existential problems.

Town planners must ensure that institutional land is prioritised and formalised. Emergency shelter should be normalised to shelter GBV victims, people whose houses have burnt down, and the group we are currently focusing on. We should not view emergency shelter as a once-off.

It must be a priority to formulate a homelessness policy, to obtain the necessary budget and incorporated the plan into mainstream policy narratives. We should not leave this process to government lawyers and social workers alone to draft, and assume all is well.

The broad strokes of such a policy would include the following, how to profile homeless individuals, create a schedule that entails both professional and civic education programs, social integration back into society, and lastly to do a skills assessment and see how they can enter the labour market.

Homelessness, I will argue, is a major cost to the State if unsolved. In the phillosopher Malcolm Gladwell’s article, ‘Million-Dollar Murray’, he gives an account of a homeless alcoholic that drains the resources of the State by alternating between jail and hospital over the course of 10 years.

This is the case in our context too, where the State deploys resources to help homeless people in the form of social workers, hospital resources for check-ups or treatment of injuries. The police also need to be mobilised to deal with law-breaking or antisocial behavior.

Precious resources go into the time spent by officials, to deal with the problems arising from homelessness in the community, whether by driving to the homeless, calling the police, writing reports, as well as the cost of running the hospitals that provide them with food and treatment.

Since as a society we are not yet data-driven and do not quantify the use of State resources by the hour, we will never know the true costs towards the taxpayers who also carry the burden of the homeless.

Let us not forget that homelessness affects the whole community. We simply discriminate and reject them, often for no reason at all. They have limited access to public and private services and vital basic necessities, such as a bar of soap or toothpaste.

So are there solutions? Yes, quite a few actually.

Social support is required, by for example involving them in the waste management services value chain, by selling newspapers, or by growing food and setting up gardening projects. But in general, the time has come for the existence of emergency shelters to be accepted as normal and necessary.

Local and regional government officials need to work closely with experts and community-based organisations. For the government to formulate and implement a policy on homelessness without other key players participating would be a setback – one step forward and two steps back.

In the final analysis, if we don’t manifest the constitutional provisions that ensure freedom, justice and peace for all members of society, we run the risk of denying the basic rights and human dignity of those who have no home. So, next time you meet a homeless person, ask them how they are doing?

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