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Editorial Comment: Harare’s homeless need a new start

A new effort is being put together by Harare Provincial Development Coordinator Mr Tafadzwa Muguti to seek long-lasting solutions to the peculiarly “big city” problem of homeless people living on the streets.

This does need a coordinated effort, involving as it does the Department of Social Welfare, the police, local authorities, health authorities and others.

As Mr Muguti realises and has made clear the solution is not simple.

For a start you cannot just grab people and ship them off somewhere without violating a lot of constitutional rights.

In some ways the problem of children living on the streets is the easiest to solve, although it does need resources.

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Social service experts, committed people in churches and others have a fairly good idea of why children take to the streets.

Usually the home or family environment is so awful that living rough, often in the company of others in the same boat, is preferable to living with a seriously dysfunctional family, vague relatives or step relatives.

Most have us difficulty imagining the sort of life a pre-teen or early teen child must face to take to the streets as a better option, but descriptions that have emerged show this is pretty terrible.

A street culture can arise, and has arisen.

Often that same bad family background has already damaged education openings, so you can have contempt for school.

Living in a sort of freedom has its attractions.

And cheap drug substitutes can help dull the pain.

But life for the children can be tough, and they have been exploited, economically and sexually, by perverted adults.

The preferred route of social services offices, of trying to reunite a child who has taken to the streets, with at least part of a family can sometimes work.

While the actual household they fled might not be a sanctuary, sometimes an aunt, grandparents or other relatives can help.

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But sometimes there is nothing, just the stark option of hell at home or purgatory on the streets.

It is legally possible to take a child into care, although even here there can be problems of families wanting to exploit a child or of a child who is half on the streets and half in some sort of vague family relationship. But that needs resources.

A new effort was tried last year at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak of grouping these longer-term children who had been living on the streets together in a converted training centre.

That seems to be having more success than past efforts and the special help and programmes they need can start to be implemented to give them a second chance at childhood.

But they are in an environment that treats them as themselves, not comparing them to others, so a spur-of-the-moment administrative decision to safeguard public health might just have unlocked a door that actually does lead to something better.

It is certainly worth building on.

When it comes to adults a host of legal problems arise.

There are basically just three ways of legally confining an adult who does not voluntarily agree to anything except the freedom of living on the streets.

If they have committed a crime serious enough to demand a prison sentence, a magistrate or judge can commit them to prison.

But this is hardly a long-term solution, despite the efforts made by the new breed of prison administrators to help a prisoner prepare for life outside the walls.

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For a start many the offences homeless adults do commit are so trivial that a prison sentence is often not an option, and many adults manage to get by on the streets committing acts that can be regarded as illegal, but not as seriously criminal.

And in any case arrests are rare, since they can avoid the police, and proof is near impossible to get.

It is possible to force a psychiatrically ill person to undergo compulsory treatment in hospital. But for a start you need two doctors to certify that a person is sick enough to need that route, and with the modern medication and other treatment few people need to stay in hospital long, just long enough to be stabilised and a medication regime established.

For the overwhelming majority of psychiatric patients this means that they can return to their very relieved and supportive families, live productive lives, and just remember to collect their medication each month and use outpatient care when needed.

But some of the homeless have no caring family to give the basic support and they slip back into illness, forgetting to take their pills or collecting more.

The third route is very temporary.

In a medical emergency centred on a severe infectious disease the health authorities can order a quarantine.

But there are limits if you are cured or found to be healthy.

The Covid-19 quarantine and lockdown provisions were used last year to take batches of homeless adults living in the street into care, but few wanted to stay and many left as soon as they could. 

And, as has been recorded, some of those helped sold the blankets and clothes they had been given while others simply wanted to return to what they saw as the freedom of the streets and make do.

Reports suggest that alcoholism and substance abuse are more common in this group than the general public, putting in an extra pressure.

There are those who tend to assign most petty theft and muggings to the homeless, although police statistics suggest that plenty of these criminals have homes and just work full time or part time as thieves.

But there are homeless people who have learned to do the same, although not all.

Mr Muguti wants to try a new approach, offering the homeless something better, a new start in              fact.

This will require some resources to make training for a more productive life meaningful, and it will require a special sort of approach, possibly one that seeks to understand the needs of those being helped and start including them in the planning. But this will be heavy going.

The effort does need to be made, and the laws of trespass, public nuisance and the like can be used to apply some pressure.

However, in the end a real offer of a new start, backed by effective training and psychological help, will get more homeless off the streets, allowing more effort to dealing with the ill, the addicted and the other far more difficult cases.

HERALD