Durban – The eThekwini Municipality has reason to celebrate its successful homeless programme, propelled into action when the country went into hard lockdown, but concerns remain over possible corruption in the initiative, which had a budgeted cost of at least R66 million, as well as the programme’s future.
Deputy mayor Belinda Scott said the interventions that took place, starting in the hard lockdown, included reuniting 171 people with families, running drug rehabilitation programmes, skills and education training, accommodation, and health-care services.
She said the city ran two drug rehabilitation sites – one in Albert Park which has become known for the hundreds of drug addicts who congregate under the M4 Bridge, and another at the Moses Mabhida Stadium.
“Homeless people have been able to get off of whoonga and heroin. Some of them have been addicts for up to 12 years. The team (working on the rehabilitation programme) have done incredible work on the ground. We now have people who are focused, who are happy, and we have given them their lives back,” said Scott.
But opposition parties have raised concerns over the hefty bill for the programme, sitting at R66m so far since April, as well as the council’s recent withdrawal of an item from a full council meeting which was expected to lay the foundation for a three-year roadmap to deal with the problem of the homeless in the city centre and surrounding suburbs, estimated to be as many as 4000 people.
Among the items removed by the council was an item to drastically cap spending on the homeless budget to just R20m for the 2020/21 financial year, as opposed to the R66m already spent which came out of the 2019/20 budget and came to an end on June 30.
Another item withdrawn was the granting of authority to the city’s finance office to allocate R6.5m in funding to a non-profit organisation created by the city to drive programmes dealing with “homelessness and related social ills”.
DA caucus leader Nicole Graham said the withdrawal of the items without any explanation was concerning.
“The practical effect of the withdrawal (of these items) is that the funding for the homeless programmes will not continue. The withdrawal means there is no legal authority for the council to continue providing services for the homeless,” said Graham.
The IFP’s Mduduzi Nkosi said they supported the withdrawal of the item re-prioritising the budget downwards to R20m on the grounds that they had yet to be given an adequate breakdown of how the R66m was spent.
“The reduction is huge and it is not clear how or where they cut. Our biggest concern is how the Covid-19 funds were spent and the city is yet to finish its internal audit on the spending,” said Nkosi.
According to a City’s Covid-19 Supply Chain Management Report for the period from March10 to July11, one of the cost drivers for the 12 homeless camps set up around the city was the provision of marquees – which the city first had to rent for R6.1m and then purchase for about R4.1m, while meals came in at R65 to R100 per meal per person.
Other large cost drivers would have been the provision of security, showers and toilets. In the withdrawn R20m budget, these items account for 51% of the expenditure.
Raymond Perrier, director of the Denis Hurley Centre in the city centre, told The Mercury that the lockdown provided several positives, in some instances forcing the city to implement actions which had been requested for several years.
“There is now a municipal-run women’s shelter which is at a building called Strollers. This facility had been identified two years ago as a potential women’s shelter, however, for a year and a half the city did almost nothing, and then in three days they managed to get it online as an emergency shelter for women.
“To their credit, they have carried on running it as a shelter for women,” said Perrier. He said other positive outcomes included the continuation of the provision of safe open sleeping spaces (the tented facilities erected during the hard lockdown) for those sleeping rough, and an opiate substitution programme.
He said that, in total, the city spent approximately R450 per person per day during the hard lockdown.
On the budget being cut from R66m to R20m, he said: “It will only affect the homeless if the R66m delivered R66m worth of services to them.”
Speaking to The Mercury, Scott said what drove the costs significantly higher was that during lockdown levels 4 and 5, those housed at the camps could not leave. “The cost of food, security and shelter – with four days’ warning before the lockdown of March27 presented enormous challenges.
“Businesses were closed down. Essential services were almost impossible to secure at such short notice. It was one of the biggest logistical challenges I have faced in the history of my political career.”
Scott said mayor Mxolisi Kaunda had ordered a full audit of all Covid-19 spending, including on homeless shelters.
She dismissed claims that having the matter withdrawn from the council would lead to services for the homeless being terminated.