Do we really want to make life less comfortable for those on the street?

A few nights ago I attended the AGM of my neighbourhood watch, a good example of how a community can mobilise itself and cooperate with SAPS and armed response companies to help control crime in the area.

But, unfortunately, the evening ended on a sombre note for me. A man got up during question time, came to the front of the hall, took the microphone from the skilled MC and began sprouting forth about vagrants in the area.

The man read in his deep American accent from a Cape Times article, “Street  kids are making a killing”, published on 11 October. It relates how child beggars can make up to R1600 per day, making it difficult for the city, social services and NGOs to get them off the streets.

This man, who shares my geographical surroundings but not my values, quoted Social Development MEC Albert Fritz’s statement, “We have to make it as uncomfortable as possible for them on the streets” as justification for asking the neighbourhood watch to get tough on vagrants in the area.

The audience clapped loudly. My hand shot up. My heart was racing. The Chair of the neighbourhood watch dealt tactically with the “question”. I waited patiently, my heart racing. (Am I the only one who experiences disgust physically?)

I made two short points, knowing that if I spoke for any longer I would lose control.

I told my neighbours that although I have never slept on the streets, I am sure it is already extremely uncomfortable. I also called for a rational distinction between criminals and people who simply need somewhere to sleep. There was no applause. After the meeting one woman thanked me for what I said because she hadn’t felt she could.

I had so much more to say.

My neighbour got his wires crossed. The article he quoted with dramatic effect dealt with street children who beg not vagrants who sleep in doorways. He complained bitterly about the three or four people who regularly sleep in the doorway of a coffee shop in the area that closes at 5. (I keep waiting to see a photograph of the dozens of people sleeping rough against the glass walls of the exclusive Ferrari and Porsche showroom in the next suburb. Cry, the beloved country.)

It is disingenuous to take something said in one context and apply it to another. In this attempt to give credence to your own views, you expose both your lack of understanding of the issues and your inability to express original thoughts.

I agree that in an ideal world children should not be on the street. They should be at home with their families, attending school during the day. My children are not allowed to cross the street alone, let alone hang out there.

But my children don’t have to. They have an abundance of caring adults looking after their every childhood need, and then some. They go to excellent schools; do extra murals; have play dates; watch TV; read books; swim in the pool; play on the iPad; and are fed, bathed and clothed before being tucked into their comfortable beds with a story.

I’m fairly certain the other kids in my neighbourhood live similarly carefree, safe existences. And many of their parents were sitting in the hall with me last night, clapping at the man with the American accent.

Are we so worried about the value of our properties that we begrudge a deserted doorway to someone who has nowhere else to sleep? Do we feel so threatened by homelessness on our doorsteps that we suppress what’s left of our humanity, calling for people to be (forcibly) removed from our area?

Because that, my American neighbour, is the reality of what you are proposing. In the absence of a plan to deal effectively with homelessness, what you are really asking the neighbourhood watch to do is to make sure these people don’t sleep in our area.

Think long and hard before you answer. Do you really want to make life less comfortable for those on the street?


This article first appeared in the Cape Times on 18 October 2013.

One response to Do we really want to make life less comfortable for those on the street?

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