Combatting homelessness is about more than just finding people homes

Homelessness in Anaheim, California. Image: Getty.

Twenty years ago, Jim lived under a highway bridge in New Haven, Connecticut. He was in his 50s and had once been in the Army.

After an honourable discharge, he bounced from one job to another, drank too much, became estranged from his family and finally ended up homeless. A New Haven mental health outreach team found him one morning sleeping under the bridge. His neon yellow sneakers stuck out from underneath his blankets.

The team tried for months to get Jim to accept psychiatric services. Finally, one day, he relented. The outreach workers quickly helped him get disability benefits, connected him to a psychiatrist and got him a decent apartment.

But two weeks later, safe in the apartment, Jim said he wanted to go live under the bridge again. He was more comfortable there, where he knew people and felt like he belonged, he said. In his apartment he was cut off from everything.

As researchers in mental health and criminal justice at Wesleyan and Yale universities, we have been studying homeless populations in New Haven for the past 20 years. In that moment, when Jim said he wanted to leave what we considered the safety of an apartment, the outreach team, which co-author Michael Rowe ran, realised that, while we were capable of physically ending a person’s homelessness, assisting that person in finding a true home was a more complicated challenge.

Helping the most marginalised people in society feel comfortable in a new and alien environment, where they were isolated from their peers, required a different approach that went beyond finding them a place to live.

The people we worked with needed to see themselves – and be seen as – full members of their neighbourhoods and communities. They needed, in other words, to be citizens.


Record number of homeless deaths

Fueled by the opioid crisis, high housing costs and extreme weather, homelessness and its fatal costs are on the rise.

The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development estimates an increase in the homeless population in 2017 for the first time in seven years, with more than 500,000 Americans lacking permanent shelter.

In addition, in cities across the country, there has been a surge in deaths of homeless individuals. Last year, New Orleans saw a record 60 homeless deaths, a 25 per cent rise over two years. Denver saw an estimated increase of 35 per cent over 2016, while Rapid City, South Dakota, with a population of only 75,000, saw five deaths of homeless individuals just since December.

Complicating matters, about 25 per cent of the homeless population is severely mentally ill. Many are deeply distrustful of shelters and the service system, sometimes refusing to engage in services even when their lives are at stake.

We believe our research might provide a hopeful answer for the increasing number of homeless Americans whose lives are in jeopardy on the streets of our cities.

From outcasts to insiders

Jim’s story, and other similar ones, led us on a 20-year quest to create a formal mechanism to enhance a sense of belonging and citizenship among society’s outsiders.

Aristotle said that to be a citizen is to participate in the political life of a city. Much later, Alexis de Tocqueville linked citizenship to civic participation.

We defined citizenship as the strength of a person’s connection to the “Five Rs” – the rights, responsibilities, roles and resources that society confers on people through its institutions, as well as one’s relationships to and with friends, neighbors and social networks.

Fifteen years ago, we got a small grant and created the Citizens Project in New Haven for people with mental illness and criminal histories, including major felonies. Often, they had histories of homelessness. The six-month program meets twice a week at a soup kitchen.

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Two graduates of the Citizens Project, second and third from right, in a performance with the Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven in 2017. Image: Mara Lavitt/author provided.

There are four months of classes on the Five Rs of citizenship, covering pragmatic topics such as the capacity to effectively advocate for oneself, public speaking and conflict resolution. A community advocate and peer mentors – people with mental illnesses who are now doing well – teach, support and counsel participants, or “students,” as well as provide them with living, breathing proof that people can indeed change.

Then students undertake a meaningful project in the community, such as training police cadets how to approach people living on the streets in a non-threatening manner. Graduations are held at City Hall, with family, friends and public officials cheering on.

The results?

There were statistically significant reductions – 55 per cent – in alcohol and drug use among citizenship program participants (as compared to 20 per cent reduction in the control group). Additionally, participants’ self-reported indicators of quality of life – such as satisfaction with daily activities and with their employment for those who secured jobs – were significantly higher in the citizenship group than the control groups. We have published the results in peer-reviewed articles and a book, Citizenship and Mental Health.

Criminal charges decreased, as they did in the control group, which received “usual” mental health care. Perhaps most important, each class of students became a supportive community in itself. Participants have taken seriously their new role as students, one that many had not embraced before.

Over the period in which we have conducted the citizenship project, homelessness overall in New Haven has decreased, likely through many factors, including perhaps our own work.

Citizenship approach spreading

Interestingly, however, anxiety and depression increased at various points among our participants. Perhaps the challenge of the intervention had an impact on students. Perhaps also the courage to change brought with it a vulnerability to difficult thoughts and feelings: grief over lost opportunities, lost friends, or lost dreams, even while their quality of life increased.

The project has run for years now, graduating hundreds. We’ve received funding from federal and state government. A state-wide social service agency is making their primary focus the enhanced citizenship of its 6,000 clients. Citizenship projects, based on our our model, have been launched at a state forensic hospital in Connecticut and internationally; in mental health programs in Quebec, Scotland, and soon, Spain and New Zealand.

It seems our citizenship program born 20 years ago is now coming of age. The intervention is inexpensive and follows a straightforward manual. The costs of doing nothing are certainly higher.

And Jim? He did pretty well for a while, then one day ranted enough about a public official that it had to be reported as a threat. Though completely exonerated, he fired his treatment team and refused all help once again. The Citizens Project had apparently arrived too late to help him.

The stakes of full membership in society are indeed high as we undertake this work for people on the margins. But our graduates – as they are recognised at City Hall by the mayor, as they train the police, as they serve on boards of homeless shelters where they once lived – say that seeing themselves as citizens helps.

And when we see the smiles on our graduates’ faces, or when they talk about their new employment, or when they talk about their joy in getting away from drugs and alcohol, we know that their new-found citizenship helps others, too.

Michael Rowe, Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Yale University and Charles Barber, Visiting Writer, Wesleyan University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.