Being Homeless Isn't A Crime
Big Issue|Issue 294
According to Statistics South Africa, ours is the most unequal country in the world. And this inequality is visible in all of our cities. Unless you are living under a rock, you’ll be aware that South Africa has a large homeless population.

In towns and major cities around the world, the experiences of the homeless are similar, though responses may be different. A particular part of the experience is that without a private home, all of a person’s lived reality is experienced in public – open for everyone to see.

While we may be aware of (or acknowledge) the hardships of poverty in this country, some people may be unaware that all of our major cities have local government by-laws that criminalise homelessness by making certain actions illegal in public.

For instance, Cape Town has local legislation: the By-law Relating to Streets, Public Places and the Prevention of Noise Nuisances (Provincial Gazette 6469 of 2007) (“the Streets By-law”), which makes it a crime to urinate or defecate, bath or wash, sleep or camp overnight or erect any shelter in public. It also makes it illegal to beg, stand, sit or lie in a public place.

These by-laws were enacted to ensure the streets remain clean, to keep pavements safe for pedestrians and to prevent “loitering” and “vagrancy”, but also to stop what some people call “crime and grime”. The general (and regrettable) sentiment hidden in the legislation, however, is that homeless people are unwanted, commit crime, make the streets dirty and discourage tourism.

IN DIRE STRAITS

The by-laws were introduced to protect property owners who make complaints of “anti-social” behaviour by homeless people so that law enforcement can remove them from the streets or neighbourhoods where this behaviour occurs. But how can someone be treated like a criminal for being without shelter, particularly in cities with recognised housing crises?

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