HOW THE HOMELESS OBEYED THE “STAY AT HOME ORDER” IN THE NIGERIAN COVID-19 LOCKDOWN
Dr Gbemiga Bolade Faniran lectures at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife
Without mincing words, housing is more than the provision of mere shelter. It is globally acknowledged as the most important after food and clothing. It is conceptualised variedly as: a process and a product, the image of a neighbourhood and by extension the city, the extended womb of a child’s physical, psychological, educational and emotional development, and a social symbol of man’s status and personal identity.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2014 emphasised this stating that the right to adequate housing is fundamental to adequate standard of living. Yet, millions of people are homeless, living in unspeakable “housing” conditions. In Nigeria, violent displacements, forced evictions, natural disasters, insurgence and poverty have rendered many homeless.
The influx of people into cities for greener pasture, without assurance of where to live also accounts for homelessness. Many homeless people cannot afford the cost of decent accommodation due to economic hardship. Some engage in petty trading, hawking, panhandling, marketplace servicing (alabaru) and public transport touting (agbero) to make a living. Some are mentally ill, while other are into alcoholism, larceny, hooliganism and gansterim. They often resort to living under bridges, in abandoned and/or uncompleted building, as well as in open spaces and motorparks/ bus stations. bus stop, open space, motor park and other sorts of make-shift apartments.
There are no official statistics for homeless people in Nigeria. Available estimates however, suggest that they are in the millions, dotting the landscape of many cities - from Lagos to Kano and from Maiduguri to Enugu. They are often neglected and criminalised, with the police apprehending them for loitering or wandering late at night. They are more vulnerable in periods of emergency such as the ongoing COVID19 pandemic. In Nigeria, the COVID-19 index case was reported on February 27, 2020 in Lagos. By May 26, 2020 the virus has spread around the entire country with over 8344 cases and 249deaths.
Certain measures were put in place by both the federal and state governments to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Citizens were encouraged to practice hand hygiene, maintain physical distancing and wear face mask/covering in public. Total and partial lockdown measures were announced across the country, and people were to ‘stay at home’ to protect themselves. The home, therefore became the and frontline guard against the spread of the disease.
For Nigeria’s homeless, ‘staying at home’ is impossible. The outbreak of COVID-19 with its consequential containment measures has resulted in a situation where many find themselves in a dilemma. For the homeless population, street children, destitute, people living with disabilities and beggars: How do they stay at home when there are no shelters, and many live in transient places? How do they practice hand hygiene, physical distancing and other recommended protocols for coronavirus protection? How do they contact the CDC should they fall ill? In fact, their precarious living conditions make them more vulnerable to respiratory illnesses and to COVID19.
For the newly homeless, the situation is far worse. About 4500 residents of Tarkwa Bay and Okun Ayo waterfront communities in Lagos were rendered homeless in January 2020 when they were forcefully displaced. Since the lockdown was announced in March 2020, pockets of building demolitions and forced evictions have also occurred in Lagos, Abuja, Bayelsa and Rivers states, thus increasing the number of homeless people in the country, many who do not even have the skills to survive on the streets. Across the northern part of the country - thousands of homeless boys (Almajiri) have been sent back to their states of origin, while others travelled down to the Southern part of the country in agricultural produce trucks. For these new migrants to the city, one wonders where they intend to stay and how they will protected themselves from the scourge of COVID-19.
The coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria offers an opportunity to reflect on other interrelated crisis: homelessness, endemic poverty and the lack of a social welfare system. It is essential to first understand clearly and conceptualise homelessness in the Nigerian context. There is need for robust research that will explain the nature, causes and pattern of homelessness. The lived experience of the homeless, their vulnerabilities as well as their social safety nets should also be interrogated. All these will assist policy makers to develop evidence-based responses to this oft neglected urban challenge.
In the immediate term however, it is necessary that emergency accommodation be provided for homeless persons, and that access to adequate water and sanitation facilities be made available to them. Collaboration with charitable organisations can be explored to achieve this, as well as the institution of rehabilitation facilities and services post COVID-19. Furthermore, forceful eviction of residents should be suspended and the police should desist from arresting those who have nowhere to go, especially during the periods of curfew and restriction of movement.
Farha, L. (2020). COVID-19 Guidance Note: Protecting those living in homelessness.Special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing. United Nations Human Rights Special Procedure. https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Housing/SR_housing_COVID19_Guidance_informal_settlements.pdf
UN-Habitat (2014). The right to adequate housing. Fact Sheet No. 21/Rev.1. Office of the
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva. https://www.ohchr.org/documents/publications/fs21_rev_1_housing_en.pdf
United Nations (2015). Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable
Development. Available at https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development or the University of Lagos, Nigeria.