Ultimately, understanding homelessness gets a lot easier when we learn that the strongest, most enduring predictor of homelessness isn’t substance use or mental illness — it’s poverty.
For Cape Town to be a prosperous place where we all live with dignity and a roof over our heads, we must tackle homelessness effectively. The first step is breaking down the powerful misconceptions that block our understanding.
What most people get wrong about homelessness can be traced back to one mistaken belief — homelessness is an individual problem. This is the mother of misconceptions. It’s a faulty frame that ends up distorting our view of what causes homelessness, who it affects, and how we can solve it.
The public tends to believe that there are two main drivers of homelessness: substance use and mental illness. Because these are seen as personal issues, public thinking about homelessness remains stuck on the individual level.
But in reality, experts understand homelessness as a societal problem that’s caused by failures in the systems that affect all of us, like the labour market, healthcare, housing and child welfare, to name but a few. For any person experiencing homelessness, there’s rarely one, isolated reason for their circumstance. Instead, there are multiple, interconnected factors at work.
What it all comes down to, like most things, is a person’s level of advantage or disadvantage. We’re all affected by the swings of the housing market or the pressure of forces like inflation, but just how much depends on factors like our race, gender, postcode and income, as well as the quality of government services we have available.
Heart of the matter
Ultimately, understanding homelessness gets a lot easier when we learn that the strongest, most enduring predictor of homelessness isn’t substance use or mental illness — it’s poverty. The simple fact is that when you’re living under poverty’s grip, struggling to find work or stretch stagnant wages to cover rising costs, you’re at greater risk of being pushed into homelessness.
Low wages, rising rents, and a lack of affordable housing are the major risk factors for homelessness in any city. And in a city like ours, where on top of these conditions a majority of people — 57.9% — can’t afford enough food and have a monthly income of less than R1,227, the risk is especially high.
Add to this a housing backlog of more than two million people, apartheid’s enduring legacy, and the fact that more than one in four Capetonians — 29% — are unemployed, with most job losses affecting low-wage and informal workers who are already in a precarious position. Taken together, these factors mean our city’s at-risk population is significant.
There will also always be those of us who struggle with substance use disorders or mental illness — both of which, it’s important to note, are linked to trauma and abuse, particularly in childhood, and both of which are among risk factors for homelessness. But where some of us can afford the services and time we need to recover and can rely on a resourced support network to help us through, others again have to hope our straining social safety net can catch them.
Because this misconception is so dominant in public thinking, it’s necessary to point out that while substance use disorders and mental illness are among the many risk factors for homelessness, they’re also consequences of it.
Even brief periods of homelessness have been shown to have lasting, detrimental effects on a person’s mental and physical health. And for some, facing the constant threat of violence, sexual assault and the stress of survival mode, understandably leads to substance use as a means to cope. For those who want to treat their substance use disorder, barriers to entry for recovery programmes can be all but impossible to overcome while homeless.
As the rate of homelessness in Cape Town continues to rise, there’s a real danger that our collective, persistent misunderstanding of this issue will make the problem worse. It’s critical that we educate ourselves, reframe our thinking and refuse to see homeless people as the problem — homelessness is the problem.
This shift in thinking will change our approach, making it more holistic, systems-focused, and — crucially — evidence-based. This means accepting ample proof that criminalisation worsens homelessness; it’s the least effective and most expensive approach a city can take. It means accepting that shelters and safe spaces are emergency measures designed for short-term relief — they’re not equipped to help people recover, rebuild, and move out of homelessness for good.
And finally, an evidence-based shift in our thinking and approach means focusing our efforts on supportive housing, the most effective and most cost-efficient pathway out of homelessness.
As a city, we can choose to direct funding to proven solutions and follow in the footsteps of a growing number of cities that are ending homelessness. We can choose to practice our values through policies and initiatives that will end homelessness in Cape Town. But first, we need to change our thinking. DM
New Hope SA is hosting a panel event for World Homelessness Day on Wednesday 11 October from 19:00 – 21:00.