u-turn 25 birthday

United Nations General Assembly debates can be likened to an annual reunion of well-rehearsed soap box speeches by heads of state.

At the recently concluded 78th General Assembly, it was no different as world leaders eloquently focused their debates on the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The catchphrase used when speaking about the SDGs is, “Leave no one behind.” I had copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Children’s Charter on my bedroom wall while I was in high school. This was the first thing I saw when I woke up in the morning in between the posters of celebrities. As a teenager, I was witnessing our country’s transition from apartheid to democracy.

A few years before South Africa’s constitution was written, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Children’s Charter confirmed to my young mind that every person deserves to be treated with dignity no matter their socio-economic background, gender, and religion – shelter and food is a human right.

Homelessness should not be excluded from the conversation of the SDGs and Human Rights.

In 2021 the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution “Inclusive policies and programmes to address homelessness, including in the aftermath of the coronavirus” which was guided by the UN Economic and Social Council resolution 2020/7.

In the resolution, homelessness is categorised as people sleeping outdoors, in shelters, informal settlements, and temporarily living with friends or families.

I believe that in South Africa when speaking about homelessness we only focus on primary (sleeping rough on the streets) and tertiary (temporary shelters) homelessness.

Maybe we are afraid that we will become overwhelmed by the housing needs in our country. At the beginning of the year, the Minister of Human Settlements, Mmamoloko Kubayi mentioned that 2 456 773 households/individuals on the National Housing Needs Register were registered and awaiting assistance.

As stated in the UN homelessness resolution national policies could be formed when homelessness is categorised correctly. South Africa does not have a homelessness policy; conversations need to happen on a grass-roots level to formulate one.

The UN homelessness resolution urges, “Member States to consider people experiencing homelessness in designing, implementing, creating and evaluating policies, programmes, and strategies for full, equal, meaningful, effective, constructive and sustainable participation in society and access to affordable, stable, safe and adequate housing, as part of the human right to an adequate standard of living.”

As a society, we should decide that a policy on homelessness should not be a lofty piece of paper but something that we can implement.

One of the building blocks of creating this policy is to realise that people who are experiencing homelessness are valuable, they should be treated with dignity. No matter what might have caused their current living condition, they are still human and not an outcast.

At U-turn’s homeless support centres their clients who are sleeping rough on the streets receive hearty meals and have access to a therapeutic team.

People who are experiencing primary homelessness are able to sleep in a warm bed and use the ablution facilities at the Safe Space at U-turn’s Claremont homeless support centre. Through their Phase 3 Work-readiness programme their Champions are receiving life skills and have a case worker who assists them as they navigate out of homelessness, to sobriety, and independent living. At the U-turn Personal Development Centres their remedial teaching volunteers assist some of the Champions who have difficulty in reading and writing.

According to Statistic South Africa General Household Survey 2021, 10.5 % of people over 20 years are functionally illiterate. Through their holistic method of creating pathways out of homelessness, they assist their clients in becoming employable, sober, and independent. – Cathy Achilles

Originally published in the Cape Times on 2 October 2023

Photo: Canva