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Transforming Society

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Restoring Dignity

City of Cape Town set to answer serious allegations over conditions at homeless shelter

20 May 2020
Displaced people who were moved from all around Western Cape to the shelter at Strandfontein Sports Field. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)  Less

The gloves are off as the dispute between the South African Human Rights Commission and the City of Cape Town over conditions at the soon-to-be-closed Strandfontein shelter for homeless and vulnerable people heads to the Western Cape High Court.

The matter will be heard on Wednesday 20 May 2020 after an interim interdict barring monitors at the shelter, which the City of Cape Town had obtained against the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and 10 others, was set aside.
The City will now have to reply to serious allegations contained in court papers submitted by the SAHRC.

The SAHRC argues that, based on reports from monitors, the humanitarian response to the needs at the site had been “woefully inadequate and appalling”. Monitors documented numerous violations including overcrowded, squalid conditions, no access to adequate healthcare and the risk of contracting TB and Covid-19.
The monitors have criticised the City’s checklist used to screen people at the entrance to the site, charging that they were not given access to vital information with regard to numbers of people, tests and the results of these tests.

Western Cape Human Rights Commissioner Chris Nissen was told by the City that he would have to obtain statistics and data by applying for them under the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA).
The City, however, in its original application for an interdict, said the regulations did not permit Nissen to appoint monitors and accused them of threatening behaviour and spreading misinformation.
One of 10 monitors, Catherine Williams, said that City health officials had refused to answer questions from the SAHRC and monitors during the last two inspections at the site. Williams said the City had impeded attempts to monitor health services.
“The main problem is the City is busy decommissioning the site. They haven’t been able to give information on how many people were tested, their results and what has happened to the people that have left,” she said.
Lorenzo Davids, also a monitor, said the City had accused monitors of being disruptive.
“While monitoring will now continue, I think the scurrilous accusations that monitors have gone beyond their scope and were being riotous, hangs over us. It is important that the matter be settled speedily because while we are in court, there are homeless people whose lives, health, well-being are at stake,” said Davids.
At least one camp resident tested positive for the coronavirus on 13 May 2020. This was after Jessie Laiten of the NGO Streetscapes accommodated six people from the site in a supportive housing programme. A test revealed that one woman was infected with the virus.
Laiten said she had been taken aback by the result as the woman “appeared to be perfectly healthy and showed no signs whatsoever”.
City of Cape Town Mayoral Committee Member for Community Services and Health, Zahid Badroodien, confirmed that one person who had moved off-site to a smaller facility had tested positive.
Badroodien, however, maintained that the six people had been screened three times by City health officials and had tested negative.
Lawyers for the SAHRC said Nissen was concerned by the dispute about the appointment of monitors. They contend that the City’s argument, that regulations did not permit this, appeared to be a “very narrow, restrictive interpretation” and was in fact unconstitutional.
Advocate Norman Arendse, for the SAHRC, maintains that regulations must be interpreted in line with the Constitution, adding that the interdict the City sought infringed on the right to freedom of expression, movement and the rights of the SAHRC under the Constitution.
“When the matter resumes, the court is going to look at whether it is lawful for the Commissioner to have done what he did. Secondly, leaving aside what people said about the site on 11 April 2020, the question is what was the position at that particular point.?”
In a press conference, the MID said that the growing number of homeless people who had taken shelter in a local park had no access to food, clean water or ablution facilities and posed a health risk.
Arendse said the SAHRC would spell out what “monitoring” entails and what exactly these rights are.
Responding to the accusations levelled against the City Badroodien said: “We are not in a position to comment as the matter must still go before court.”
Two other organisations, the Strandfontein Social and Economic Development Forum and Strandfontein Ratepayers Associations, have also dragged the City to court and sought an order for the closure of the camp.
The gist of their argument centred around the health risk the site posed to both homeless people and the community.
There is a possibility that this matter will be settled out of court with the two organisations scrutinising the response from the City. They have not yet resolved whether they view it as satisfactory.
On Saturday, 16 May 2020, homeless people claiming they had been “dumped” by the City took to the streets and called for the provision of safe shelter during lockdown.
The Muizenberg Improvement District (MID) lashed out at the City and called on Premier Alan Winde to intervene to prevent what it said was a human tragedy in the making.
In a press conference, the MID said that the growing number of homeless people who had taken shelter in a local park had no access to food, clean water or ablution facilities and posed a health risk.
Badroodien refuted the claims, saying homeless people at Strandfontein prior to leaving were informed that alternative accommodation would be available and that they should remain at the facility until this was available.
Of those remaining at the site, Badroodien said 356 had indicated that they would prefer to remain in a safe space instead of returning to streets. He said homeless people would be moved to prefabricated structures which were in the process of being completed.
“The MID was informed that the homeless who had made their way back to the park were the same individuals who opted to leave the Strandfontein temporary emergency accommodation.”
Those who had left the facility had refused further assistance from the City, he said.

Source: Daily Maverick

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The Human Rights Commission is the national institution established to support constitutional democracy. It is committed to promote respect for, observance of and protection of human rights for everyone without fear or favour.

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