Can the homeless contribute to a global city?

Most mornings, near the entrance to Cape Town’s Company Gardens a shirtless man in a wheel chair hunches over an open drain, washing himself. A short walk deeper into the gardens, men and women are creatively positioned on partitioned benches, catching their last few minutes of shut-eye before law enforcement arrive for ‘the wake up call’. For Cape Town’s homeless population, public spaces provide a way to meet the basic needs of shelter, food or sanitation. The blurred line between public space and private living is one of many factors making homelessness ‘unacceptable’ in the eyes of fellow citizens. How do we resolve the conflict between the city’s need for investable spaces and homeless people’s use of these spaces for their basic needs? More than that, how do we co-shape a city that promotes the health and well-being of all citizens, enabling one another to do what makes us well?

Copyright Cape Times Live, 2013

Copyright Cape Times Live, 2013


A better city for who?

Global cities are defined as important economic nodes. With economic criteria at the forefront, our values for building a better city have become increasingly neo-liberal. These values influence our thinking around who the city serves and who might be spared to incur the costs of building a global future city. Its unlikely that all citizens will benefit from our pursuit of global city status unless we reconsider who builds and benefits from our future city.

At a recent Future Cape Town / Designing South Africa event titled: Design, Cities and the World Cup, Jodi Allemeier (Cape Town Partnership Programme Manager) described  how the city encourages equal access to public space. She explained one way of doing, namely handling by-law infringement equally  (for example, the student and the homeless person sleeping on a park bench should encounter the same consequences for the infringement).  But do all citizens feel the same way? Are we trading off vulnerable citizen groups’ well-being for what we perceive to be the well-being of our city as a whole? It may seem so, considering the ‘cleansing initiatives spotlighted prior to the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Adding salt to the wound are the more recent and controversial “community village” rehabilitation plans for designated ‘villages’ for the homeless. If our global city-ness comes at the cost of a more marginalised homeless population, how much better will that future city really be? Aristotle believed a “city is excellent, at any rate, by its citizens”. Similarly, Andrew Fleming (Researcher at Cape Town Partnership) notes,

“Improving the lives of Cape Town’s homeless people will also improve the life of the city itself”

So, how well would our global city really be without the well-being of its citizens? Before we can answer that question, we need to get an idea of how vulnerable groups like homeless individuals fit into our concept of ‘citizen’. By considering how homeless individuals find forms of health and well-being in our city we might learn more about the complexities of homelessness and the barriers and benefits of living in the city. My hope is that by increasing awareness of the homeless as citizens living and making a living in this city, we might start to understand which responses to homeless issues will have positive impact for building a better and global future Cape Town.

Why city streets become home

A brief history

 Homelessness takes different forms in South African cities and is more complex than a mere lack of shelter. There are detached homeless persons- those without social and housing ties; temporary overnight sleepers- the weekday street sleepers in search of work (Du Toit, 2010), and chronic homeless persons- long term, repeated homelessness (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2014). The socio-history of homelessness in our nation is unsurprisingly tied to dispossession and landlessness under the Apartheid regime, contributing to squatting and street sleeping. Historically, South African rural homeless populations gravitated towards cities in search of work and opportunities yet were distrusted and feared by city dwellers as a threat  (Cross, Seager, Erasmus, Ward and O’Donovan, 2010).

 The ‘push and pull’ factors of the streets.

Today, homelessness in Cape Town is underpinned by poverty, lack of/ poor quality shelter, abusive social contexts and cycles of substance abuse. However, there is more to understand about the push and pull factors of homelessness. What pushes people onto the streets? We are learning that people living on the streets may not have chosen to do so and if they did, it is likely due to limited options for better social and physical living conditions. What are the pull factors of city streets? Well, like most people living in cities, the urban homeless are drawn to the city by the prospects of social connectedness and better work. City streets are full of income generating opportunities. On Cape Town’s streets, homeless individuals earn a living through formal work like selling Big Issue magazines, or informal work such as waste collecting and car guarding. Also, higher numbers of traffic lights, greater foot traffic and density of city streets lends itself to begging activities by the homeless. One cannot deny that cities offer a finger on the pulse of progress and  the hope for prosperity, creating a sense of connectedness to others who are both like and unlike us.

 Perceptions and Implications

 Criminal or citizen?

Our perceptions of the homeless impact the importance given to including them in our ideas of a better future city. As citizens, they too should participate in and benefit from building a better future city. Andrew Fleming also calls for an inclusive approach to homelessness in Cape Town,

“An inclusive approach is based on the premise that the homeless have as much right to the city’s streets and public spaces as any other member of society.”

Why is it so difficult to recognise homeless people as fellow citizens? Perhaps we’re disillusioned by the aggressive begging, vandalism and other problematic activities often associated with the homeless (Andrew Fleming, 2011). Our inability to accept homeless individuals as citizens has resulted in exclusionary responses that tend to reinforce perceptions of the homeless as criminals and a nuisance. While we may have experienced homeless individuals in this way at some time or another, generalising these experiences to homeless people creates cycles of marginalisation that can result in ill-being.

The City of Cape Town and partnering organisations are making strides towards improving the lives of homeless people in Cape Town. But, we must caution against responses motivated by the appearance of surface calm, which can further marginalise homeless individuals from the activities important to their health and well-being.  Here are some examples: Law enforcement officials are frequently made the interface for responses to homeless people in the city, reinforcing perceptions of the homeless as criminal and at the margins of society. In most instances shelters, like The Haven Night Shelter, are peripherally positioned from important economic and social spaces in the city where homeless individuals sustain their livelihoods through informal economic activity. And, while the Cape Town Partnership guides us in responding to homeless people in the city through the Give Responsibly campaign, we still understand very little about how to interact with homeless people beyond our wallets. Cape Town citizens must acknowledge that while we co-exist in the same city, we all experience different contexts and the average citizen may have very little grasp on the complex web of factors influencing homelessness. Most of us don’t know enough about the social determinants of homelessness. This has left Cape Town’s everyday citizens unempowered to respond to homelessness in a sustainable and health promoting manner. Richard Bolland (a volunteer at The Haven Night Shelter in Wynberg) puts it this way,

“Our biggest problem is generalising… We look at someone on the street and think to ourselves that they shouldn’t have made those life choices or that they should seek help through the solutions the government provides. We fail to see their past. We fail to see that their father was abusive or absent, or that their mother deals drugs or doesn’t love them. We fail to see that shelters and institutions often reject people or are too full. Life is about decisions, yes. But sometimes people are forced to make a decision or a mistake and suffer greatly from the consequences.”

The implications  for design, choice & well-being

A narrowed view of the whole picture of factors causing and sustaining homelessness results in generalised and misplaced perceptions, criminalising homelessness and reducing the significance of these individuals’ livelihoods. Such perceptions affect policy, design and social systems, marginalising homeless people from meaningful social, economic and health giving activities. It is an unhelpful cycle that may hold Cape Town back from developing as a holistically (as in socially and economically) global city.

We know that it takes more than shelter to make a home. The benefit of shelter is tied to the social concepts surrounding it, such as belonging, ownership, permanence, dignity and identity. One of the ways shelter impacts well-being is by enabling the aforementioned social aspects. Another way is through providing safety and protection from weather conditions, which are basic needs and foundational building blocks for health. What might change if we looked at go-to shelter areas across the city through the lens of social and biological health? It may have interesting implications for design and could contribute some promoting basic elements of health for those most exposed and vulnerable.

Consider how design in public space can restrict choices and opportunities for meaningful living and health-giving activity. With a focus on “keeping homeless people off the streets”, design and other interventions tend toward making spaces less accessible to the homeless, minimising the benefit of those spaces can on improved well-being. For example, the sharp rocks placed under the unfinished overpass in Cape Town’s foreshore prevent homeless individuals from finding shelter under the overpass around the newly built MyCiti Bus depot. While this is reasonable for safety purposes, what affect does it have on homeless people’s choice for accessing shelter when needed?


Photo from Xcollectiv showing the “Non-poor Only” public art campaign in areas where eviction and discrimination occur across the city.]

Another example is the commonly seen partitioned park benches, which prevent people from sleeping across them.



Company Gardens, copyright City Sight Seeing Blog

Co-creating a better city for all citizens

Understandably, public spaces need to be maintained for use by everyone in the city. Yet when overnight shelters aren’t available, this kind of design further restricts homeless people’s options for everyday activities including health giving rest and shelter.  The effect is that those living on the street, often already struggling with ill-health (substance abuse, mental and physical illness), are prevented from making choices to do what they need to do, to be well.

For this reason, I believe the traditional responses alone are not enough to contribute to meaningful and sustainable livelihoods for homeless people. As idealistic as it may sound, I believe it takes an informed and engaged citizenry to co-build towards belonging, ownership, permanence, dignity and identity among one another. Despite any criticism it may have received, The Street Store stands out to me as one untraditional response to homelessness and a creative way to build a sense of belonging, identity and dignity among Cape Town citizens. These tweets are a testament to that, showing how the right responses to the vulnerable could contribute to a socially global city.



Acknowledging homeless individuals as citizens could be the first step toward more creative responses to the issues surrounding homelessness. It would also shift our ideals around what makes a city better. Creative and inclusionary responses that optimise health and meaningful everyday activities for homeless people may look different in each city. One idea involves incorporating inclusionary principles in the design of public spaces, such as these public seating designs by Sean Godsell.


park benchhouse-1
park benchhouse-3




If cities are excellent by their citizens, then a global city should be one that is not only economically important but also socially significant. When citizens are well they can build global cities, cities that are inherently better because of the well-being of those living and making a living within them.  This will take a citizenry that sees beyond the surface of social issues such as homelessness. Currently, responses to homelessness seem shaped by efforts to divert the homeless away from key business and tourism hubs in the city.  The provision of shelter and social re-integration strategies seem peppered by an overarching goal of keeping presentable public spaces. One argument presented here is that improving the health and well-being of homeless individuals may better equip them to take steps towards appropriate rehabilitation and sustainable social re-integration. The old saying, “you can’t help those who don’t want to help themselves” dismisses the role society plays in helping others get to the place where they desire and are equipped to help themselves in whatever way. Understanding the importance of social connectedness and opportunity associated with proximity to urban hubs could help us re-imagine the approach taken to address the issues surrounding homelessness. It will enable us to realise differentiated “community villages” for the homeless as unhelpful. It may cast light on the need for shelters (like The Haven) to be located closer to the social and economic opportunities that may help homeless individuals sustain their livelihoods. It may inspire creative design that promotes inclusion of marginalised groups, improving the health and well-being of vulnerable groups. A better future Cape Town is a holistically ‘global’ city. One that is designed to optimise the health and well-being of its citizens.

About Sharyn Sassen

I'm a City dwelling occupational therapist with a vision for justice and well-being in the everyday things that people do and the spaces they live, work and play in. Also, more coffee please.

There are 2 comments

  1. dandan.boshoff

    Such a nice article Sharyn. And I fully agree. This is a discussion I often have between friends, especially if I catch them giving money to people begging along walk ways or at traffic intersections.

    The example of city designs that limit our ability to interact with our city environments are very important. As with the example of the sharp rocks there are also the metal spikes around buildings where a person, homeless or otherwise, could have been able to rest. We really need to improve our ability to interact with our environment.

    Imagine a pregnant woman or elderly person needing to take a short rest between bus stops, shopping or just exploring our cities. At the moment most of our public spaces in Cape Town are specifically designed and built to limit this type of interaction. Just walking or cycling between places are difficult or dangerous. Or at the very least more difficult or dangerous than it should be.

    While Cape Town is making huge strides in this more information is needed and the general public has a responsibility to become more informed and involved. This is why im so appreciative of the 2014 Design Capital which is enabling the city to reconnect with its people and places.

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