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Shelter case to be heard in the Constitutional Court

- Lee-Anne Bruce

CALS challenges the gendered impact of City of Johannesburg shelter rules

The Constitutional Court will tomorrow hear an appeal by residents of Ekuthuleni Shelter against the City of Johannesburg and Metropolitan Evangelical Services. The appeal challenges the constitutionality of rules imposed in shelter accommodation provided to people who would otherwise have become homeless after an eviction.

Ekuthuleni Shelter has been used as alternative accommodation by the City of Johannesburg since 2012 after a Constitutional Court ruling. At the time, the City of Johannesburg was ordered to provide temporary accommodation for people evicted from their homes in Saratoga Avenue. They were placed in Ekuthuleni Shelter, which is managed by an organisation called Metropolitan Evangelical Services and operates under a ‘managed care model’. The most troubling aspects of this model include rules which force residents to leave their homes between the hours of 8:00 and 17:30 on weekdays and 9:00 and 17:30 on weekends (the day-time lockout rule) and further prevent spouses and families from living together (the gender segregation rule).

The residents of Ekuthuleni, represented by the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI), took the matter to court, arguing that these rules infringe on a number of their constitutional rights, including the rights to dignity, privacy and freedom and security of the person. The matter was heard in the South Gauteng High Court in August 2014 and the Court found that the rules are indeed an infringement of the residents’ rights. The City of Johannesburg subsequently appealed the judgment at the Supreme Court of Appeal and, in May 2016, the High Court’s decision was reversed. The residents were granted leave to appeal the Supreme Court’s decision to the Constitutional Court and the final appeal will be heard tomorrow.

The Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) has intervened as amicus curiae or ‘friend of the court’ in both the High Court and Supreme Court of Appeal. CALS, represented by the Legal Resources Centre, continues to intervene in the matter at the Constitutional Court. CALS hopes to assist the Court by providing arguments on the need for gender-sensitive policies on housing guided by International Law. Our submissions argue that the shelter rules not only infringe on residents’ rights to dignity, privacy and freedom and security, but have a disproportionate impact on women. The lockout rule puts women at an increased risk of experiencing gender-based violence, and the gender segregation rule deprives them of intimacy and support from their partners. The shelter places particularly unfair burdens on women and therefore also infringe on their right to equality.

This case raises significant constitutional questions around the connection between the right to access adequate housing and the rights to dignity, equality, privacy and freedom and security of the person. The outcome of the case will have far-reaching implications as it will determine the City’s policy in other shelters which assist those who may face homelessness as a result of evictions, which remain a significant problem in inner city Johannesburg.

The matter is set to be heard on 16 February 2017 in the Constitutional Court. You can read more about the case including court papers here.

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