Women are being evicted from shelters onto the street

Victims of violence are rendered homeless or forced to return to abusive homes

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Photo of Johannesburg High Court
A woman faced eviction from the shelter she was staying in. The South Gauteng High Court struck a request for an urgent stay of the eviction from the roll. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

On 2 August 2019, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) was in an urgent court hearing in Johannesburg. We were attempting to assist a woman, who was previously raped and kidnapped, to gain re-entrance into a gender-based violence shelter after being evicted.

The judge in the matter found that there was no urgency in this case and proceeded to strike the matter from the roll. This was despite the woman being rendered homeless. She had previously spent two evenings sleeping on a bench at Park Station.

In response to the judge’s decision, the shelter staff and employees from the Department of Community Safety (the government department running the shelter) present at the hearing celebrated their successful eviction of another woman from the gender-based violence shelter on the second day of Women’s month.

CALS has acted and continues to act on behalf of at least 15 women (many of whom also have children) to defend their imminent evictions from the shelter. The issue that arises is that the shelter does not adhere to the law around evictions in our country and unlawfully evicts women and their children, which either forces them to go and live on the streets or return to their abusers.

The law already acknowledges that shelters are considered as homes, and no one may be evicted from their home without a court order. This is supported by cases like Metropolitan Evangelical Services NPC v Goge and Dladla v City of Johannesburg which state that section 26 of the Constitution as well as the Prevention of Illegal Evictions Act and the Unlawful Occupation of Land Act both apply to shelters. Even in light of these precedents, the shelter continues to unlawfully evict women and their children without a court order.

The shelter argues that it is only an emergency shelter and that women must leave after six months. The problem with this argument is it is short-sighted and does not deal with some systemic issues.

First, by unlawfully evicting women who either have to live on the streets or return to an abuser negates the assistance they may have received during the six months at the shelter. The shelter is ultimately returning women to places of violence (the street or an abuser) and creating a cycle of violence. The cycle of violence occurs where women are trapped in an initial situation of violence, such as their home, which forces them to enter the shelter to escape, but are then reintroduced to the old violent situation, when returning to the abuser, or a new one, when rendered homeless and on the street, after being evicted. The women will be in a place where she continuously experiences violence, escapes that violence temporarily, and then is forced by eviction to return again.

Second, is that the government does not currently have an explicit legal obligation to provide long-term housing to women and children who have experienced violence. What is then created is the current situation that many women and children face, where they do not have an alternative place to live when finishing their short-term stay at a gender-based violence shelter and will ultimately return to the abuser or become homeless.

There must be proper policy and laws in place to deal with gender-based violence shelters in our country as well as laws that deal with long-term housing for women and children who are survivors of this form of violence.

If government is serious about the plight of women (and children) as is claimed throughout the month of August each year, they will acknowledge their duty to protect individuals from gender-based violence and proactively act in implementing law, regulations and policies around shelters in our country.

The writer is with the Centre for Applied Legal Studies.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.

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TOPICS:  Human Rights Violence

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Write a letter in response to this article


Dear Editor

I am mostly shocked that the judge did not consider this case urgent. We know that research tells us that the risks of a woman returning to her partner escalates and can be fatal. More women are killed after attempting to leave their partners. The risks to children in these situations has a serious emotional and psychological impact. The law has to change. Women need to be protected from this. Where are the local refugees in our communities? I work in the UK as a social worker and this is unheard of!

Dear Editor

As someone working with the homeless to integrate them back into society I respect the letter of the law and the needs of people as laid out by this article. However, as in the case of the homeless, there is unfortunately another angle to the narrative that is regularly lost in our drive to uphold the rights of any marginalised group.  Holistic approaches are needed in order for the Bill of Rights to benefit people.  Alternatively these same rights will become another reason why people do not benefit.

There always needs to be an effective exit strategy in order for shelters to have a positive effect.  This is hard because every client (person entering a shelter) has a unique story.  Quite a bit of assistance could be provided by organisations working with the homeless but a key part of the success in every client is their own inner drive taking ownership of their lives.  The type and quantity of assistance rendered has a deep effect on the inner drive of a person.  Too little assistance and the client remains homeless, abused, etc.  Too much and the client becomes institutionalised in the shelter unable to exit and reintegrate as a productive member of society.

An example of this is the 6 months rule at most shelters.  Additional 6 month stints are often arranged at the risk of institutionalising, knowing that "necessity is the mother of all innovation".  Knowing you only have 6 months to find your feet is often a key motivator to find your feet.  I have quite a few that feel the jobs or alternative accommodation available are "below" them.  Deadlines helps that inner drive.

We also need to be careful not to make it hard for shelters to render assistance.  Court orders are expensive.  More funds will have to be reallocated to legal fees instead providing services.  Funding is already thinly spread to meet the need. We need to ensure fairness but lets not have another reason not to take someone in.

Lets get our people home.

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