Homelessness, Housing and Spatial Justice in the Inner City

“Abstract Archidaily Architecture” by Ludo Photos from Pixabay.

This essay is part of a virtual conference series “The Roles of Law, Religion and Housing Through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs)” sponsored by Canopy Forum and the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. This series features scholars, experts, and practitioners who examine global challenges of homelessness, housing policy and housing vulnerability. You can browse all essays and view video presentations from the series here.

The shortage of affordable housing in urban areas is a global problem and it remains a challenge to find possible housing solutions, especially through the lens of the UN SDGs. The purpose of this paper is to address homelessness, housing, and spatial justice in the inner city by using the Akanani Homelessness Support Centre in the inner city of Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, as a case study that can be contextualized in terms of historical development patterns and current spatial strategies. I am currently working on projects that focus on inner city revitalization, green infrastructure, and regional regeneration in rural areas, exploring the impacts of Modernism, apartheid planning, and recent revitalization initiatives in the inner city of Pretoria. Before 2008, I worked in Boston for ten years and will therefore briefly mention some US examples that address affordable housing to provide a different perspective.

Forced removals and inner city decline in Pretoria, South Africa 

When people of color (black, colored, and Indian) were forcefully removed from inner city residential areas to newly established townships on the periphery of the city in apartheid South Africa from the 1940s to 1970s, it led to the partial destruction of neighborhoods, resulting in empty, scarred landscapes on the edges of the inner-city. During the ensuing apartheid years, these communities could only access the city as menial support workers, traveling long distances from the townships on the periphery. Ambitious infrastructure projects such as road schemes proved destructive to the urban grid, favoring mono-functional streets, and disrupting the relationships between building frontages and active streetscapes. Fast-moving feeder roads further disconnected and isolated these areas.

The development of high-rise buildings in the inner city peaked in the late 1970s and was supported by modernist spatial planning and zoning codes. A slow decline of the inner-city commenced in the 1980s, mirroring international trends of disinvestment in Central Business Districts and exacerbated by the impact of economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa.

Business enclaves developed in the suburbs, slowly stripping the inner city of its economic lifeblood, resulting in a decline of property values and maintenance of the inner city. 

During the 1990s, liberation movements were unbanned and economic and housing opportunities for an increasingly mobile black population signaled a shift in the populace in the inner city–from 90% white in the early 1990s to 90% black by the end of the decade. The inner city started to restructure to accommodate these shifting patterns of use and occupation. Informal traders began operating on walking routes to serve the ever-transient population and the flight of high-end business and retail resulted in many empty buildings, with state and municipal offices the remaining anchor tenants. Residential buildings became more densely occupied with tenants often doubling or tripling – hence placing stress on the infrastructure and management of the buildings, resulting in a decline and disinvestment by owners. The homeless population increased as people from rural areas came to the city seeking a better life–often with little success–and marginalized members of society gravitated towards a more accommodating and fluid fabric. In the middle of the 1990s and the first years of the new millennium, the public sector unsuccessfully planned to arrest the decline of the inner city, focusing on ambitious revitalization and development projects that were seldom implemented and failed to turn around the decline of the inner city. Crime increased, which led to controlled access to buildings and the fencing of properties and public spaces. This, in turn, resulted in an introverted and impoverished public realm.

Civic and religious groups support the homeless

An increasing concentration of poverty, lack of affordable housing opportunities, and homelessness were addressed by numerous civic and religious groups who invested in the future of the inner city. A supporting social infrastructure and entrepreneurial culture emerged in response to the changes in the inner city, often independently of public sector efforts. Community organizations, NGOs, religious organizations, and new businesses established themselves in the inner city serving the new population in newly vacant buildings. A good example is the numerous private schools and private training facilities that have been established in empty buildings to serve learners from an emerging black middle class. 

The Akanani Homelessness Support Centre is administered by the Tshwane Leadership Foundation (TLF), which is part of the Tshwane Homelessness Forum, an umbrella organization advocating for the homeless in the city. The center provides outreach programs, employment support, skills training, and advocacy services to homeless men. The vision of Akanani is “to create spaces in which homeless can reconnect, recover their dignity, and access the resources that will re-integrate them into communities.” The outreach team interacts with homeless men on the streets of the inner city on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, the aim being to build trust and to invite them to the drop-in center. Akanani staff meet with 20-30 homeless people for up to two hours every morning for devotions, followed by coffee and something to eat. Some of the men (between 10-15) remain for counseling. Basic needs are met by offering toiletries and clothes, although ablution facilities for cleaning are not available.

Further assistance is then offered by formulating an Independent Development Plan (IDP) for each homeless person. This plan helps to assess the needs and problems, current situation, and progress of the homeless, while identifying programs available to assist them. Computers at the drop-in center can be used to type resumés, and a telephone is available to make employment-related calls, the aim being to help people out of the homelessness cycle. Skills training is offered in-house by other units in the TLF, and NGOs such as Youth for Survival and the EPWP (Expanded Public Works Programme) offer internships at various government and community organizations. Akanani also assists homeless people in getting into rehabilitation programs, as drug use plays a big role in causing and prolonging homelessness. They do not offer housing but refer people to another shelter. Daytime outreach focuses on prevention of STDs, HIV and AIDS. Akanani cannot quantify its success as the use of its services is voluntary and there is no tracking system for the people who choose not to return. Feedback happens via chance meetings and voluntary feedback, which suggests that a number of people have found pathways out of homelessness thanks to their support.

The location of Akanani, located in a pavilion in the historic Burgers Park, is significant. Despite an increase in crime in the 1990s that made the space unsafe–especially at night with drug use and petty crime predominating–the park remained well used and maintained. Several affordable housing developments became new anchors. Private property owners are upgrading existing housing and converting office buildings into housing, thus incrementally upgrading the area. The introduction of well-managed, affordable housing stock with amenities and public transportation close by contributed greatly to the stability of the area. 

The park has a play area for children and church groups hold services under the trees. The varied open spaces are used by the community for repose and relaxation. Celebration of public life was reintroduced to the park with the annual street festival, the Feast of the Clowns, which brings together artists, residents and celebrants from all over the city and the homeless can enjoy an annual Christmas dinner. The mix of all these elements forms part of a healthy model for cities. Accommodating a range of users and providing a supporting environment are critical elements for emerging spatial justice in an inner city that provides generous inclusionary environments of interaction and support for people from different backgrounds and cultures – including the most vulnerable who are thus re-anchored in society.

US Voucher Systems and South African RDP houses

There are two papers in this webinar series that address the shortage of affordable housing in urban areas in the USA, but I do want to mention the US Section 8 Housing Voucher Choice program. This program was created by the Federal Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 to assist low-income families in finding a place to live at affordable rents in the community. Section 8 tenants generally pay 30% of their income towards rent, which is like subsidized public housing. The balance of the rent is paid by local public housing authorities. Section 8 can be tenant-based, where the voucher is “tied” to the tenant instead of a particular housing unit, or project-based, where the voucher is “tied” to the project, not the tenant, which means that tenants who leave the project also leave the assistance behind.

This program has become an integral part of the government’s commitment to meeting basic housing needs, but as Lawrence Vale correctly notes, it is for the “deserving poor”, and never reaches the “real poor”, people who fall through the cracks and cannot live in affordable housing.

They are doomed to be homeless. In South Africa, RDP houses are also only allocated by the government to the “deserving poor” and marginalized people like refugees, illegal immigrants, or asylum seekers, as well as those who have fallen victim to substance abuse will not be able to rely on government support.


This essay analyzes inner-city homelessness in terms of its historical development patterns and institutional programs and management. It uses the Akanani Homeless Support Centre in Pretoria, South Africa as a case study, and describes the relationship of the center to its urban context. Addressing homelessness is not just about providing housing but also about restoring dignity to people and providing a safe nurturing environment. Although Akanani does not provide housing at all, it provides a pathway out of homelessness. Unfortunately, substance abuse is a constant problem, which exacerbates psychological problems. Potential soft infrastructure networks and complementing revitalization efforts in the inner city must be explored. ♦

Marianne de Klerk holds a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Pretoria; was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and subsequently obtained two master’s degrees in architecture and urban planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.

Recommended Citation

De Klerk, Marianne. “Homelessness, housing and spatial justice in the inner city.” Canopy Forum, March 20, 2024. https://canopyforum.org/2024/03/20/homelessness-housing-and-spatial-justice-in-the-inner-city/