Study tackles the ignored violence against Durban’s homeless people

Researching a marginalised community presented distinct obstacles. Picture: Pexels

Researching a marginalised community presented distinct obstacles. Picture: Pexels

Published May 10, 2024


Homeless people are often ignored in society or seen as being troublemakers or criminals, yet they themselves experience violence just like any other South African.

Nosipho Mthembu, who recently graduated with a Master of Social Science: Criminology and Forensic Studies from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, explored violent behaviours perpetrated against Durban’s homeless population.

Mthembu’s research, motivated by a genuine interest in societal disparities and the condition of the marginalised, showed the terrible reality that Durban’s homeless face as unseen victims of urban violence.

Mthembu’s study in the city’s central business district (CBD) debunks the myth that homeless people are just criminals. She said she experienced first-hand the marginalisation and maltreatment they endure.

Homeless people are more likely to be victims of violent attacks, often by those seeking to exploit their circumstances,” she said.

In a twist, her results revealed that some law enforcement officials contributed to this victimisation by seizing property and ignoring the plight of the homeless.

Her interviews revealed the grim truth of a daily battle to survive in the face of hardship.

According to the eThekwini Municipality, there are currently approximately 16,000 homeless people in and around the city. The collection of data was conducted by Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) volunteers in cooperation with the Denis Hurley Centre.

eThekwini Mayor, Mxolisi Kaunda said that the 2024/2025 City Budget is ‘pro-poor’.

He added that he would increase the number of soup kitchens in the city and allocated R137 million towards the cause.

“Our nutrition programme plays a vital role in providing much-needed food to poor households,” said Kaunda.

Not only did homeless persons describe physical attacks and theft, they also discussed mental distress and a lack of support from onlookers and authorities, according to Mthembu.

The report emphasises the critical need for targeted interventions and structural change to address the overlapping vulnerabilities faced by homeless people.

Nosipho Mthembu at her graduation. Picture: Supplied

Commenting on cultural attitudes that permit homelessness and violence, Mthembu maintained that stigma and discrimination stifle growth.

“Negative stereotypes and misconceptions dehumanise homeless individuals, making them easy targets for exploitation and violence, pushing them to the margins of society,” she said.

Researching a marginalised community presented distinct obstacles. She discovered that developing trust and rapport took patience and empathy.

“Authentic relationships were key to understanding their experiences and perspectives. Logistical hurdles, like accessing transient spaces, necessitated innovative research methods to ensure inclusivity.”

Mthembu hopes that her research will act as a catalyst for change by questioning preconceptions and calling for institutional reforms to build more inclusive and compassionate urban environments.

“I hope to influence policies that recognise homeless individuals as victims deserving of empathy and support,” said Mthembu.

Dr Nomakhosi Sibisi, Mthembu’s supervisor, attested to her dedication, stating that it will certainly lead to even bigger successes.

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