Help Not Handouts

There is no easy solution for vagrancy, but affluent neighbourhoods may be more able to give a hands-up Picture: KEVIN SUTHERLAND


Vagrancy¬†is a very emotive topic and, following Mantombi Makhubele’s article “Please don’t feed the vagrants” (September 18), I would like to clarify certain misconceptions around the issue and the vagrancy initiative in my ward.

The first misconception is around the term “vagrant”. The strict definition of vagrant is someone who wanders from place to place without a permanent home or employment.

However, in our investigations into the various groups living on the streets of Johannesburg, we have discovered that, among the people we call vagrants, there are large numbers who, in fact, have homes, families and sometimes even a form of employment. For example, casual labourers who, owing to low salaries, prefer to sleep on the streets or in a park close to their place of work rather than use their money on transport home.

The term “displaced people” is therefore a more accurate description, but, for the purposes of this article, I will use both.

The next misconception is that vagrancy is a racial issue. It is, in fact, a problem that cuts across all races, age groups and genders. In short, it is about human beings who often just need a chance – sometimes several chances – in order to find a better life than on the streets. Furthermore, the suburbs and communities affected by vagrancy are of all races and socio-economic categories, but more affluent neighbourhoods, with more active residents’ associations, are perhaps better able to combat the environmental factors that encourage vagrancy.

Among these environmental factors are apparently simply things like faulty street lights, blocked drains, broken pavements, abandoned land, the dumping of rubbish, general neglect and overgrowth. These often facilitate not only vagrancy, but crime as well, and need to be actively reported by residents.

But the biggest misconception, and perhaps the most emotive one, is the idea that we can help the displaced by supporting them on the streets. Well-intentioned residents, church groups and charities can unwittingly create an environment for vagrancy to thrive in a suburb by giving vagrants money, food, clothes and blankets, which are often sold for cash to buy drugs or alcohol.

None of these initiatives solve the vagrancy problem – they merely perpetuate it.

Public awareness campaigns are therefore necessary to encourage people to rather support NGOs which assist with drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and provide shelters, education and employment for the homeless so that they may have a chance at a better life.

Not all displaced people are drug addicts or alcoholics. Many are drawn to substance abuse to fight the cold or escape the harsh reality of their situation.

The majority of vagrants need rehab before being accepted into shelters or programmes that could take them off the streets and give them a chance of finding a job and a place to live, but proper, free in-patient rehabilitation centres are extremely few and far between.

We want to create one in our region, particularly to help homeless youths, who are often addicted to either glue or more serious drugs such as “woonga”, a lethal combination of heroin, dagga and antiretrovirals available on the streets at R25 a hit. Instead of giving them money for drugs, residents could contribute to sending these youths to a drug rehab centre.

We also need more operational shelters, both governmental and nongovernmental. City shelters are often hampered by a lack of resources. For example, funding is required for a new shelter that has been created in Hillbrow. Number 3 Kotze Street has the capacity to take in 350 people, but, unfortunately, the Department of Human Development has not been given sufficient budget to run this facility effectively, so, for now, we can’t make use of it.

Vagrancy is an extremely complex issue that requires a multipronged approach to address the specific needs of the various groups, including orphans and vulnerable children, teenagers, the aged, the unemployed and substance abusers. Drug dealers and criminals also often hide out among the homeless or co-opt them into criminal activities.

But whatever their identity or circumstances, they cannot stay on the streets. It is neither healthy nor safe for them, and it is against the city’s bylaws for those very reasons, as well as for the protection of the rights of ordinary residents and businesses.

Usually the SA Police Service or the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department are called in to remove them, but a more humane, long-term solution is required.

It was in the spirit of finding a balance between the law and the rights of vagrants and residents alike that I invited representatives from the departments of human development and social assistance, the Displaced People’s Unit and Early Childhood Development, as well as NGOs, the SAPS, the metro police (who did not attend) and residents’ associations to a workshop in August.

The aim was to identify the different groups of displaced people in our area, the hot spots they tend to congregate in and the resources we had at our disposal to resolve the problem together.

We are hoping to use our ward vagrancy initiative as a pilot project for the rest of Johannesburg. The aim is to come up with a win-win situation. The homeless who can be helped will be provided with food, shelter, medical assistance – including drug rehabilitation if necessary – and hopefully employment opportunities through NGOs and city departments.

Those vagrants involved in drug dealing and other forms of crime will be removed by law enforcement, and residents will no longer have to fear for their safety, nor worry about property devaluation. But in order to achieve this, buy-in is required from all stakeholders, particularly residents.

Anyone interested in becoming involved in our project can contact me on or read more on