Social media has blown up after the discovery that City of Cape Town officials have been fining the homeless in the city. Homeless people in Cape Town will be fined – and possibly find themselves in court – if they are found to be “obstructing pedestrian traffic on sidewalks” or in violation of any other City bylaws. These fines can range from anywhere between R300 to R1500. However, the City has responded by arguing that the enforcement of bylaws indiscriminately is not harassment and that Cape Town is being “singled out and attacked”.
“You cannot tell a category of people in your city that the law doesn’t apply to them,” said member of the Mayoral Committee for Safety and Security, Alderman JP Smith.
“I don’t think you can call the application of law harassment…You are dealing with people who have been warned around these offences.”
Smith said that the City has made several attempts at assisting the homeless through various social outreach programmes, employment opportunities and social development initiatives. In spite of this, however, Smith indicated that the situation in Cape Town has deteriorated and that action needs to be taken accordingly.
“Over the last few years we have moved our emphasis away from enforcement and focused on the social development interventions. We created reintegration units so that there’s no homeless person on the streets who hasn’t been offered accommodation,” said Smith.
“The situation on the streets has deteriorated significantly during this time and as a strategy we can see that this is flawed…We can’t implement social development options without some kind of enforcement.”
“The situation on our streets have become a lot more problematic. The overcrowding in courts is resulting in the release of hundreds of parolees every month – parolees who live among homeless people. There’s also the situation around the large number of foreign nationals finding themselves on the streets.”
But the ANC in the Western Cape has slammed the City’s by-laws, calling it a “war on the homeless” and a “merciless and heartless onslaught” against those living on the streets. Provincial chairperson Faiez Jacobs has demanded the City stops the “cruel, inhumane enforcement” of its by-laws and make more shelters available to the homeless.
“This is tantamount to criminalizing homelessness,” Jacobs said.
“We believe that residents have been complaining about the breaking of by-laws. But by-laws relating to streets, public places and the prevention of noise nuisances cannot be more important than human beings. The City is fining the destitute for having nothing, not even money to pay these fines. How cruel is that? This is the real hard, cold-blooded, uncaring face of the DA.”
He believes a more compassionate way of dealing with the homeless would be to feed them, encourage them to go into shelters at night and reunite them with their families.
“We demand that the City of Cape stops this callousness immediately and that it implements more humane policies to deal with homelessness.’’
CEO of the Haven Night Shelter, Hassan Khan sympathised with the City and said that homeless people often refuse shelter and obstruct public spaces. Khan feels that the homeless receiving these fines are violating reasonable bylaws and as such, law enforcement is necessary.
“We are making it sound as if somebody is mugging the homeless,” said Khan.
Smith also said that while the City does not harass the homeless, the homeless are often reported as being the harassers.
“Our communities will tell you that homeless people harass them – threatening them, damaging their property, having sex in public places, urinating in public places, defecating on sidewalks and damaging parks and other infrastructure – so there are problems on both sides.”
On Wednesday, the South African Human Rights Commission said it would be investigating the matter. Commissioner Chris Nissen was expected to meet with homeless people at the HRC offices in Cape Town and do a walkabout of the CBD to speak to street people.