Fencing solution raises eyebrows

Newly set up, the fence is meant to protect the legitimate users of the civic buildings.

The City of Cape Town has spent more than R400 000 on a fence around the Fish Hoek civic centre, to keep homeless people out – a move that has drawn flak from some.

Ward councillor Felicity Purchase says civic centre patrons and nearby residents called for the fence to stop anti-social behaviour in the area.

“It was a contentious move, and it’s sad that we got to the point where we have to fence off our property, which is public property and should be safe, but we have had untold harassment of the users of the civic council facility and intimidation of residents by homeless people,” she said, adding: “We want them to rest assured that they and their cars and property are safe from theft, break-ins and damage.”

The decision was prompted by incidents of vandalism, theft and damage to property, she said. In most instances, those incidents had been reported to the Fish Hoek police.

Plans for the fence had been set in motion early in the year but had been stalled by lockdown, she said.

Operational matters were taken by line departments, in consultation with councillors and officials, and did not need to go through a sub-council meeting, she said.

The civic centre had already been subject to a “right of admission reserved” policy, but there had been no way to police it, she said. The fence had been put up with “great reluctance”.

There would now be 24-hour access control to the civic centre precinct, she said, and those booking the hall or using the civic centre facilities would be able to get in and out.

The City’s facilities management department manages the premises, and City spokesman Luthando Tyhalibhongo, said City officials and councillors had held several discussions about the need for a fence.

“When meetings were held at night, officials felt scared to walk to their cars afterwards, and toilets at the library and the municipal hall were vandalised during the day by homeless people congregating on the grounds,” he said.

Mr Tyhalibhongo said the work had gone out to tender but had not needed to go through public participation. The civic centre, he added, was one of several City facilities getting extra security.

However, Leigh Barrett, of Revamp The Valley, said the City was wrong if it thought the fence would solve homelessness.

“Fences do not solve problems. They never have. Putting a fence around a public space and limiting a community’s access to that space does not solve the issue of homelessness.

“A fence merely pushes the homeless into the residential streets – where those who do not accept their presence will be further angered, and those who want to help will increase giving handouts that are so damaging to the very people they are meant to help,” she said.

Ms Barrett said the money could have been better spent on safe shelter, more social workers and mental-health professionals and more public toilets.

“The City chooses short-sighted measures like funding law enforcement vehicles and barricades, instead of investing in the people and in our town.”

Growing numbers of people were likely to find themselves homeless because of Covid-19 and the associated economic crisis, she said.

“The negative views shown by some in our community towards the homeless ignore the fact that a growing number were their neighbours just a few short weeks ago.”

She said there were among the homeless many very decent, educated people who wanted to work and while she understood the argument about “anti-social” behaviour there were also very vulnerable people who had sought refuge at the civic centre.

“Pushing people away from public spaces by erecting a fence, puts them at greater risk and also puts increased pressure on residents with homes as desperation grows.”

Carolyn Axeman, of The Net, a charity that helps the homeless, said the fencing of the civic centre coupled with inclement weather had led more people to her, begging her to help them find accommodation.

“The work we do at The Net is to help people transition off the street but we cannot be responsible for providing low-cost housing. This is the responsibility of government.

“In particular, we struggle with those over 65 as they cannot go to shelters. We need more facilities to address this chronic social problem,” she said.