“Poverty” isn’t strong enough to describe the misery so many face. We’re back to destitution

Liverpool, 2009. Image: Getty.

The Labour mayor of Liverpool on the return of Victorian poverty.

Destitution. Just think about that word. Over the past decade, we have moved on from talking about social exclusion, or inequality, or even just poverty. Now, such is the impoverishment of whole communities, buckling after a decade of deep public spending cuts, that we are using the language of the Victorian era.

More than 1.5m people experienced ‘destitution’ in the UK at some point during 2017. Not my words, but the description given by a team of academics in a major new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Destitution in the UK 2018,which provides a benchmark for what the term means in the modern era.

They conclude that destitution refers to experiencing at least two of six indicators in a ghastly basket of measures of extreme poverty. Has someone slept rough for more than a day? Or had fewer than two meals a day for two or more days? Have they been unable to heat their home for five or more days? Or light it? Do they have appropriate clothing and footwear? Basic toiletries? And is their income so low they might lack these basic essentials in the immediate future? 

The problem of destitution is clustered in many post-industrial urban centres. Unsurprisingly, Liverpool comes second after Manchester, with some of the poorer parts of London, the North East and West Midlands also included.

The legacy issues that remain from the 1980s – including ingrained, inter-generational poverty and high unemployment – are hard to resolve, when eight years of swingeing central government spending cuts have reduced the council’s budget by two-thirds, some £444m.

Nevertheless, Liverpool has made it a priority to support people and families who face dire personal circumstances. Our Citizens Support Scheme and other hardship funds provided crisis payments for more than 10,000 last year – and helped more than 3,000 people and families pay for home essentials. 


We have also invested an extra £1mto prevent hardship and homelessness through discretionary housing payments. Last year we made 11,000 such payments, supporting residents who are suffering due to a shortfall in state benefits caused by government welfare reforms.

Our approach has been to deal with crisis situations, in order to stave off calamities. In many cases, we are one of the few councils in the country to provide this range of support, investing £23.2m last year in preventing our poorest citizens sliding into destitution.

This isn’t just because we are committed to social justice – or because I myself grew up in grinding poverty and know exactly how life-limiting it is. No: we have an additional motive for supporting the very poorest citizens in our city.

 If we allow people to sink to the very depths of despair it costs more in the long run to pull them back up again into mainstream society, transferring the pressure onto other frontline services, particularly the NHS. Destitution is cruel and brutal – but it is also an inefficient way to run a society. Our approach sees social justice and economic efficiency working hand in hand.

 But the most galling aspect of the Rowntree report is how bad government policy is conspiring to make the situation worse:

 ‘People were pulled into destitution by a combination of factors: benefit delays, gaps and sanctions; harsh debt recovery practices (mainly by public authorities and utilities companies); financial and other pressures associated with poor health and disability; high costs of housing, fuel and other essentials; and, for some groups – including young people – even lower levels of benefits than for others, and for some migrants, no eligibility at all.’

A large part of the rough sleeping problem we face in Liverpool involves failed asylum seekers who are designated as having no recourse to public funds. They are left to fall through the cracks – which is why I have instructed my officers to ignore this heartless government diktat.  

Remember David Cameron’s boasts about the “big society,” and claims that “We’re all in this together?” The destitute are those failed by his empty rhetoric and the grinding effects of austerity.

Although we don’t have the resources we need to fix all the problems of destitution – mostly driven by factors outside of my control – when we can prevent someone shivering in a doorway, we will, regardless of the rules.

Similarly, we were the first city in the country to bring forward compulsory landlord registration in order to tackle tenant exploitation and drive up standards in the private rented sector. 

All too often, serious-minded reports like this come along and cause consternation for those of us on the political left, but barely skim the surface when it comes to shifting government policy. 

Let this damning report – exposing the reality of destitution in our country, caused by a decade of austerity – be the moment when even the stony-hearted in Whitehall say, “Enough is enough.” 

Joe Anderson is Labour mayor of Liverpool.

 
 
 
 

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.