Over 14,000 people estimated to be living on the streets of Cape Town

Study finds that R20,000 is spent per homeless person per year in the criminal justice system

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Photo of two people sleeping on the pavement and a passerby

There are an estimated 14,357 homeless people living on the streets of Cape Town. Archive photo: Masixole Feni

  • A study on the cost of homelessness in Cape Town estimates that over 14,000 people live on the city streets.
  • The cost is estimated to be R744 million.
  • R286 million is spent on criminal justice costs alone.

There are an estimated 14,357 homeless people living on the streets of Cape Town, and more than R744 million a year is spent on homelessness.

These findings were made in a study, “The Cost of Homelessness in Cape Town”, conducted by the NGO U-turn, with help from Khulisa Streetscapes and MES.

According to Jonathan Hopkins, acting director at U-turn, it is the first cost-of-homelessness study in Africa. The purpose of the study was to gain more understanding of what is spent on homelessness in Cape Town.

“We spend more on homelessness than we realise,” said Hopkins, during the virtual launch of the study on Tuesday. The largest category of spending, estimated at R335 million, is towards reactive or punitive costs. This includes urban management, criminal justice costs, security services, and the City’s Displaced Peoples Unit (DPU). Of this, R286 million is spent on criminal justice costs alone.

To work out criminal justice costs, the study took the survey responses to questions on the number of arrests, the number of court appearances, time in prison, and time on parole. The numbers from these questions were then used to work out criminal justice costs based on research by the Anti-Drug Alliance, with the figures adjusted to reflect inflation (in 2016 it cost R105 per arrest, for example).

“The reason is that the average person on the street is being arrested 11 times more frequently than the average person who is housed,” said Hopkins. This works out to almost R20,000 per homeless person per year in criminal justice costs.

Humanitarian spending (support from the public) comes to R286 million per year, and developmental spending (such as shelters and social development) amounts to R121 million a year.

The study used various sources to work out the costs of homelessness, such as speaking directly to sector leaders and service providers and using their financial statements and government publications.

To work out urban management and security costs, for instance, the Cape Town Central and Voortrekker Road City improvement districts were approached directly and asked what proportion was attributed to homelessness-related issues. These ratios were then applied to the 2020 CID budget.

The study surveyed 350 homeless people in Cape Town. The majority (70%) of those surveyed spent more than one year on the street; 45% had spent more than five years on the street.

Hopkins said that the study did not attempt to give solutions to the cost effectiveness of homelessness interventions, but that this should be the next step.

Jesse Laitinen, Streetscapes project director, said, “We should not be looking at more costs … but rather looking at how we can use the money that is currently being used rather poorly on ineffective law enforcement … when that could be diverted to service programmes that have an actual impact.”

The full report by U-turn will be released in two weeks time and will be available to the public.

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